While watching an Olympic medal ceremony a few evenings ago, I remembered a blog post I wrote over ten years ago (on a now extinct blog) about national anthems and the universal nature of musical communication. Here’s what I wrote (March 28, 2005):
In discussing the cross-cultural communication power of music with a friend of mine, Michael Riley, he suggested that I research the national anthems of various countries to see if the themes that the music communicates are similar. I thought it was a great idea, so I typed “national anthems” in Google and found this site [Note: the site I linked to then is no longer active, but I found this YouTube video that serves the same purpose]. After spending quite a bit of time listening to dozens of national anthems from all over the world, I found that Mike’s suspicions were correct. Without fail, each national anthem carried messages of pride, grandeur, majesty, and stateliness that we would assume a national anthem should carry. And each one communicated these things to my American ears.
Contrary to those who insist that musical meaning changes significantly among different cultures, it was evident that the national anthems of Japan, South Africa, Germany, Iraq, and Malaysia all communicated these national themes using the same musical semantics.
This doesn’t mean there are no exceptions; I’m sure there are. After I tweeted about this Sunday evening, a few friends brought Fiji’s anthem to my attention (you can listen to it at 02:12:08 on this video), which sounds like “Dwelling in Beulah Land”–not very majestic. Nevertheless, even that anthem communicates sentiments consistent with what we’d expect of a national anthem.
Other friends on Facebook noted differences among various anthems. No doubt; I am not denying that there are differences among the anthems; there certainly are. But as I’ve argued before in this article, apparent differences between the various musics of the world are actually on the surface and not integral to the music itself. When we really look at the music, we recognize fundamental universals.
Others commented about how this anthem or that communicated something different than the others. Again, agreed. But the very fact that we can have this conversation about another country’s anthem proves my point: we can understand what it means. Another anthem might communicate a different nuance than ours does, but that is likely due to the fact that they view their nation slightly differently from how we view ours; the meaning, however, is universal. I’ve written about this more here.
Bonus: Another friend directed me to this fascinating New York Times article abut the particular arrangement of our anthem they are using in Rio (be sure to listen to the audio in the article). Again, we wouldn’t even be able to have this discussion were it not for the power of music to communicate universally.
I’m not suggesting everyone should worship with the same music. Nor am I denying that conventional associations exist within the music of particular cultures that are unknown to others.
What I am pushing against is the notion that people of one culture cannot understand and therefore cannot evaluate the music of another culture. This kind of argument is being made more and more, along with a denial that music is a universal language.
Listening to the anthems of the world appears to contradict this argument. Listen to all six hours of these national anthems, and tell me music is not a universal language: