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Differences and Universals in Music Across Cultures

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A missionary cannot properly evaluate the differences among cultural expressions until he has understood their universals.

At the root of the most thoughtful defenses of contemporary worship today is an appeal based on a missions philosophy that stresses indigenous ministry. If, as the International Missionary Council asserted as far back 1938, an indigenous church is one that "spontaneously uses forms of thought and modes of action natural and familiar in its own environment," then it makes sense that a church use those music forms that are most common in its culture. A pastor or a missionary should not expect a church in one culture to use the musical forms of another culture; such great differences exist between the cultures that to use another culture's music would be like speaking a foreign language. Ed Dobson makes this kind of argument in defense of using contemporary American pop music in American churches:

We understand this principle when we send missionaries to other countries. These missionaries seek first to learn the language and the culture of the places to which they go. Only then do they attempt to communicate the gospel. We would never send an English-speaking missionary to a Spanish-speaking county [sic] to minister exclusively in English. That would be irrational, not to mention stupid. (Ed Dobson, Starting a Seeker Sensitive Service (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 15.)

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This philosophy is based on the fundamental assumption that differences between cultural expressions are simply neutral differences; they are like skin color—they are what they are, and we cannot place any moral value on such differences.

This assertion could be addressed from various angles, but what I want to highlight in this essay is that there really aren't as many differences between different cultures' musical expressions as contemporary missiologists might imply. Are there differences? Certainly. Must a missionary take such differences into consideration as he seeks to evangelize and plant churches? To be sure.

But I would suggest that universals in music far outweigh the differences, and I would even go so far as to insist that a missionary cannot properly evaluate the differences among cultural expressions until he has understood their universals. Even secular musicologist Leonard B. Meyer makes this point:

My premise is simple: one cannot comprehend and explain the variability of human cultures unless one has some sense of the constancies involved in their shaping. . . . Because we are all products of a special and limited time and space, our behavior and beliefs are invariably influenced by the cultural and personal circumstances in which we find ourselves. But, needless to say, it does not follow from this "provenance relativism" that the significance and validity of works of art, theories, and so on are confined to the time and place of their genesis. If they were, the art of the past (for instance, the plays of Sophocles) and the actions of the protagonists in history (Caesar's crossing the Rubicon) would be incomprehensible. (Leonard B. Meyer, "A Universe of Universals" The Journal of Musicology 16, no. 1 (1998), 6.)


No one can deny that there are differences among the musical forms of various cultures. Asian music, for example, just sounds strange to Western ears. Such differences usually account for why certain music is associated with particular ethnicities. Most people can hear the differences between Spanish, Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, African, and South American musical styles.

The kinds of differences that make music from different cultures distinguishable are many, but I would like to highlight the three most salient:


Timbre (rhymes with "Amber") is the distinct sound different voices or instruments make. Ability to distinguish timbre is what allows us to distinguish between a trumpet and trombone or between your mother's voice and your neighbor's voice.

For a variety of reasons (some of which will be discussed below), music of different ethnic groups possesses specific timbral characteristics that we then often associate with those ethnic groups. The most obvious reason for this is instrumentation; some cultures use certain instruments more than others, and thus develop their own unique sound. The other reason for this is differences between vocal timbre among ethnic groups. Because of the tonal language of the Chinese, for example, their vocal timbre differs from other ethnicities.


Different kinds of harmonies are also unique to various cultures. Harmony is simply the sound created when two or more pitches are played or sung simultaneously. Western Classical culture developed a very complex harmonic system over hundreds of years, while other cultures have very little functional harmony, their music being more centered in melody. Certain harmonies, therefore, are often associate with a particular culture in which it is more often used.

For example, Asian music is often associate with the pentatonic scale, which possesses no harmonic dissonance. Asian music often has a drone note over which a pentatonic melody flows, and therefore this kind of harmony "sounds" Asian.

It is important to recognize here, however, that much music across the world is based on the pentatonic scale, including American folk music (and, consequently, many American hymns). What gives Asian its unique sound is not just the harmonies of a pentatonic scale, but also certain common instrumental and vocal timbres that accompany it.

It is also important to recognize here that while certainly cultural styles may not have functional harmony (that is, certain conventional uses of chord progressions), harmony always exists in music. More on this below.


Particular rhythms are also often associate with specific ethnic music. We might associate certain rhythmic patterns with Latin music, African music, or European music.


While recognizable differences certainly exist among various cultures' music, I would argue that universals all music shares far outweigh the differences. Again, I'll highlight three fundamental universals.

Sound Perception

Although differences in timbre exist among cultures, how those timbres are perceived by human ears is universal. All humans can recognize the differences between different instruments and voices, and all humans describe the unique characteristics of various sounds similarly. No one, for example, describes the sound of a flute as reedy or brash and the sound of an oboe as sweet and pure. Furthermore, the kinds of sounds and range of pitches that humans can hear (or would want to hear!) is also universal (although we lose the extremes of the ranges as we age, of course), and how humans perceive loudness and softness is also universal (again, with exceptions as people age).

Scale Structures

While certain kinds of scales and harmonic structures predominate in various ethnic groups, most musicologists agree that all cultures possess some kind of scale structure in their music. This assertion includes three elements, namely, that all cultures recognize the basic idea of an octave, all cultures base their music on a system of discrete scale pitches, and all cultures recognize a tonic or tonal center in their music. Instruments have been discovered from as long ago as what evolutionists would call the "Stone Age" (in other words, a long time ago!) that give clear evidence that scales very similar to the ones we use today were used in ancient times. An example of this is the so-called "Neanderthal flute."

In other words, music in every culture has an enclosed system of pitches that moves progressively toward a feeling of finality. As I noted above, not all music has functional harmony, but all music possesses the natural tendency of certain pitches to "lean" toward others, giving it a natural harmonic feel.

Melodic Contour

Most musicologists also recognize that all music possesses general melodic contour that is recognizable by humans. That is, all humans can distinguish one melody from another based on the melody's sequence of pitches and rhythms, and this accounts for the existence of some kind of melodic construction in most music. Furthermore, there are limits as to the length of melodic ideas that will be retained in the memories of most humans, which sets restraints on composers.

This is not to say that all music always abides by such constraints; twentieth-century Western music, for example, makes use of entirely different rules than were typical in Western Classical music, making its "melodies" disjunct and extended. But I would argue that twentieth-century music runs against fundamental universals, and this is why it is not often accepted by the average public.

Why there are Universals

Each of these cases of musical universals (and there are more) exists because they are rooted in the natural created order, specifically human physiology. The reason all human hear pitches similarly and recognize the octave and tonic is due to similarities is their physical makeup. All human share basic physical characteristics. Dane L. Harwood explains one example of this:

The basilar membrane, located in the inner ear, vibrates according to the frequency (cycles per second) characteristic of sound waves impinging on the tympanic membrane (ear drum). The configuration of these vibrations is so complex that it is difficult to understand how the auditory nerve transmits unambiguous psychological information about pitch and loudness from the physical information represented in the basilar membrane's vibrations. Modern auditory theory suggests two overlapping mechanisms for pitch perception in humans. For vibration rates of 100-20,000 Hz, (cycles/second), the place of maximum vibration on the basilar membrane seems to be a good predictor of the pitch we hear. For vibration rates of 20-1,000 Hz, the rate of vibration of the entire membrane seems to code pitch. Note that there is an overlap of coding between 100-1,000 Hz, which is precisely the frequency range over which human hearing is most accurate. This pitch perception dual-mechanism is a good candidate for a universal in human auditory perception, and has many implications for the design of musical instruments. (Dane L. Harwood, "Universals in Music" Ethnomusicology 20, no. 3 (1976), 525.)

Leonard B. Meyer calls such universals "bio-psychological" and argues that they are rooted in acoustic universals:

Acoustical stimuli affect the perception, cognition, and hence practice of music only through the constraining action of bio-psychological ones. (Meyer, "Universals," 6.)

He suggests, for example, that the reason music in every culture is based on similar melodic, harmonic, and scale structures is due to similarities in human physical makeup:

The kinds of relationships that can be perceived and processed by the human mind are limited by neuro-cognitive universals. And these constraints account for many features of music--non-Western as well as Western. To take an obvious case, the minimum distance in frequency between pitches in a scale depends on human auditory discrimination. As a result, intervals smaller than a half-step almost always serve to inflect structural tones. (Ibid.)

In other words, universals in music exist because people in all culture and in all times share a common culture of humanity, and therefore, those elements of music that correspond to this universal culture may rightly be called universal.

I marvel when Christians deny universals in music and quote certain contemporary musicologists in defense of their argument. It is true that many philosophers and musicologists today deny musical universals. But the reason they do so (in opposition to almost every philosophy and musicologist for centuries past) is due more to philosophical and epistemological reasons than musicological or sociological. In other words, the reason unbelievers deny musical or cultural universals today is because if they admit universals, they have to acknowledge a created order, universal morality, and by extension, a higher being. They refuse to admit these ideas, and so they must reason themselves out of cultural universals. Even some musicologists today recognize this:

Part of the problem of the concept of universality is that it is perceived either to hinge either [sic] on ontological foundationalist assumptions, or on obvious biological functions, or on basic lists of cultural institutions identified by anthropologists . . . (William E. Paden, "Universals Revisited: Human Behaviors and Cultural Variations" Numen 48, no. 3 (2001), 278.)

Universals in culture exist because God exists, because there is a united created order, and because all humans share the same father.

Why there are Differences

What accounts for the differences among cultural expressions, then, and how might a missionary navigate them in his desire for indigenous ministry?

Different ethnic groups use the universals of music differently to express the values that are particularly emphasized in their culture. Music is cultivated within a particular culture's environment of values, and thus music expresses those values.

Often those values are noble, and thus the music that emerges expresses noble values. Other times the music reflects debase values and empty worldviews. It is all based on what kinds of values predominate a particular culture. John MacArthur gives a good example of how music from Africa or the Orient reflects the value systems of those cultures:

The pulsating rhythms of native African music mimics the restless, superstitious passions of their culture and religion. The music of the Orient is dissonant and unresolved, going from nowhere to nowhere, with no beginning and no end—just as their religions go from cycle to cycle in endless repetitions of meaningless existence. Their music, like their destiny, is without resolution. The music of much of the Western world is the music of seduction and suggestiveness, a musical counterpart of the immoral, lustful society that produces, sings, and enjoys it. (John MacArthur, Ephesians, 260-262.)

It may be unpopular to say, but some cultures, and thus their musical expressions, are simply better than others depending upon the values that nurtured those cultures. Kenneth Myers says this well:

Cultural institutions, artifacts, and expressions that deny, suppress, or distort that order ought to be recognized as inferior to those that acknowledge, honor, and enjoy it. (Kenneth A. Myers, All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1989), p. 30.)

What a Missionary Must and Must not Do

This is why it is essential that a missionary understand the universals in music before he attempts to evaluate the music of a culture in which he ministers. A missionary must not blindly adopt all the musical forms of his target culture without first evaluating what values are being expressed through the music of that culture, and the only way he will be able to evaluate those musical forms is if he first understand the universals.

So if a missionary must understand the universals before he can evaluate the differences, what is the best way to learn how those universals work? I would suggest that the best way is to study the music of a culture that has emphasized those universals and has done so in an environment of noble values, and I would suggest that one can find such a culture in Western Classical civilization. I know of no other culture that produced a great body of musical expression rooted in transcendent universal ideas. (Consult this series for a more thorough explanation of this claim.)

In other words, I think it is enormously naive to reject the study of Western Classical music based on "missional" reasons. It is only in the study of transcendent universals in music that a missionary will be able to evaluate the musical forms of his target culture.

Scott Aniol, PhD, is an author, speaker, and teacher of culture, worship, aesthetics, and church ministry philosophy. He is chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He founded Religious Affections Ministries and has written several books, the most recent being By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture. He can be found on Twitter @ScottAniol.

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