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How the grammar of music can help to understand emotions across cultures


By Hans J. Schmolke

Let’s understand grammar as a set of rules of how to connect words (of one language) to transfer sense (content) that is understood by others in the same – or in a similar – way. From that point of view, languages carry messages, questions, communication elements, finally content. In this sense grammar is a rule set of how to put codes (in this case, words) into a context of sense. However, there is a further level of language as spoken communication between two or more persons: the melody. The melody of a sentence. The way in which languages use tones and melodies, are different. Sometimes the tone carries the message. However, there is one kind of melodies that carry the information of anger and joy (and a whole lot of emotional information). These melodies are understood everywhere. Everybody is touched by the sounds of grief, when we see a disaster from a distance, even if we know nothing about the culture and the language of the persons. Like this, we can assume that it is largely the tonal side of the language that carries the emotion. In a conversation, the tones over time create a melody. We know already something about the emotional state of a group of people when we just hear the sound of a conversation, without understanding the words. We can also assume that much of this understanding is independent of a specific culture. Those sounds, to a large degree contain of a set of sounds, of melodies and their rhythms that are typical for the human race. At this point, we are very close to what can be said about music in the same way. Music, where sounds and melody are also the elements. We can see ‘music’ as a social language that is understood in all human societies. (If I say all, I usually talk about ‘in more or less 85% of all cases. In human societies, we have never uniformity, but we always can generalize to a degree of typically 85%) Let’s talk about music – the grammar of universal human emotions. Equally, with music – as the universal language of emotions – we see the effect that it follows a grammar that makes everybody (across all cultures) understand which kind of emotions it carries. At this point, we need to know what we look at when we say ‘music’. Here we look at the wide body of compositions and pieces of music along the human history and across the human cultures. There are exceptions in distant cultures, so we may talk about 85% again. But we talk about 100% of pop music, of jazz music, of classical music, of regional forms of music. For most people on this planet, this definition of music includes all the music around them. It includes all the music we know and therefore describes the universal music as a universal emotional language. Now we look at the grammar of the universal music, that we want to look at as if it was a grammar of universal human emotions. Although there are myriads of pieces of music that have been played and recorded in history, they together represent one of the simple structures in this universe. Any piece of music can be classified by 3 categories, and each of these categories has 7 variants. Imagining this, you end up with a 7-by-7-by7 cube. Within this cube, we have 343 little subcubes. If we want to refer to music as a language of emotions, then this language can distinguish between at best 343 different emotions that are understood in a similar way across all cultures and languages. Now, distributing all pieces of music among all of these cubes, it shows that many of those 343 cubes are rarely populated. The bulk of cases concentrates on rather few of the cubes, with some of them attracting extraordinary attention. The ones that dominate the present scheme of preferences represent the musical language as it is used. It does show dialects, like oriental patterns that are different to classical western music. However, this is just a question of the preferences among all the cubes that dominate the present music. The domination of pop music – which is called pop music because of its domination – across global media, narrows the use of the musical-emotional language. Certain subcubes lose preference, and we can observe that the overall portfolio diminishes in favor of ‘star patterns’. However, this may have been the case in all eras in history. A dialect of music prevails, which heaves certain patterns (e.g. the one of Michael Jackson) into the skies, and then they diminish with their stars and are replace by others. But it is better to start at the beginning. What is it at all that we talk about? Let’s go step by step. (to be continued in part 2)


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