And dare stick your head way in
You just might hear a distant song,
A whale who hopes you’ll sing along.
MORAL: If you listen carefully to nature, you’ll hear conversations all around you.
from Wild Symphony
written by Dan Brown
illustrated by Susan Batori
Rodale Kids, 2020
accessed on YouTube 8/7/23
Wild Symphony link to YouTube
When I was six and said I wanted to learn to play the piano, it only took a nano-second for Grandma and Grandpa to have a new spinet set up in our living room. And I found out that Grandma could play, really well. She could sing, too.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called music the universal language of mankind. A recent study at Harvard supports that. The authors wondered if music is common to every culture and which musical qualities overlap. Their project grew to include data scientists, psychologists, linguists, and political scientists. According to The Harvard Gazette, the researchers “looked at every society for which there was ethnographic information in a large online database, 315 in all, and found mention of music in all of them.”
They found that by examining the qualities a song, regardless of its cultural origins, people all over the world understand its meaning. Generally, a love song “sounds” different from a lullaby or a dance tune.
The authors conclude that “[music] exists in every society…varies more within than between societies, regularly supports certain types of behavior, and has acoustic features that are systematically related to the goals and responses of singers and listeners.”
But music is not the only universal language.
Dance is communication through physical movement. A basic class in Art Appreciation brought “marble statues” to life as I watched dancers use their bodies to evoke joy. Dance usually incorporates music and facial expressions to help performers tell a story with their bodies. Hula dancing kept Hawaiian culture alive especially before their written language was developed in the early 19th century.
Humans have other ways to communicate, too. Painting, sculpting, weaving, and architecture, communicate the emotions, ideals, and aspirations of the artists. They visually express their cultures’ norms, maybe through satiric cartoons or buildings that reach to the heavens. A culture’s goals may be expressed with a graceful bridge or sculpted bronze.
The Expressionist artists, whose movement spanned the very early 20th century, wanted to re-create how the world felt more than how it looked. Splashes of paint mimicked trees and boats and people. Bright shapes crash into each other in sharp angles or gentle overlaps. Colors clash in anger or swirled peacefully around their canvas.
But what is the purpose of communication? Britannica Kids lists five major reasons to communicate:
- to inform
- to express feelings
- to imagine
- to influence
- to meet social expectations
But, if the main purpose of language is to communicate, “correctness” must take second fiddle. If the main purpose of communication is to connect us with each other, the difference between can and may doesn’t matter very much. Mona Lisa continues to evoke our emotions when we see her. So does Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is memorable, but so are “Rhapsody in Blue” and “The Bohemian Rhapsody.”
It’s when words, images, melodies speak to our emotions, that magic happens. We understand each other. And when we understand each other on an emotional level, we can begin to feel empathy.
More than written and spoken language, communication needs transmitters and receivers. When we acknowledge our understanding with frowns, grins, and tears or a beautiful vase or scary movie or evocative dance, we connect with each other.
My piano sat in my parents’ living room waiting for me. When I moved out, my piano came with me from house to house to house. It’s tuned now, and I occasionally pull out my old practice books and plunk around a bit.
Part of growing up for me was learning that I would always be a better listener than player. I put my playing aside to make room for different creative endeavors.
To balance the rest of my reading, I picked up The $64 Tomato by William Alexander (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006). His memoir describes finding the perfect house, making the perfect repairs, preparing his perfect garden, and fighting perfectly confounding critters, all with tongue-in-cheek humor. I alternate between nodding in sympathy and laughing out loud. Recommended. (As it was recommended to me. Thanks, Samie!)
—-Be curious! (And keep a song in your heart)