Skip to content
Who's in the Video
Michael Spitzer is the author of The Musical Human and professor of music at the University of Liverpool, where he leads the department’s work on classical music. A music theorist[…]

Do humans have something like an instinct for music? The musicologist Michael Spitzer thinks so. As he points out, every person is born with an innate ability to recognize rhythm, beat in time to it, and recognize and recall melody.

Music-related abilities may be universal, but musical preferences and styles can differ greatly from culture to culture.

In this Big Think video, Spitzer explores why cultures interpret music differently, and also whether the internet will have a homogenizing effect on music.

MICHAEL SPITZER: When we're talking about universality we have to be very careful because on the surface, each culture's musical genres and scales are very distinctive. But underneath that, there are a lot of instinct which are common across the whole world. You can say that there is a music instinct, that we're all born for a capacity for music expressed through an ability which is innate- to recognize rhythm, to beat in time to rhythm, to recognize melody, to recall a melody. This universality then changes the second that culture gets its hooks into a child. It actually matters whether you bounce your baby in rhythms of two or three beats. It'll determine the kind of rhythm the baby will grow up to enjoy. It matters to the baby the kind of melodies you sing to the child. Babies born in the West prefer certain kind of tuning systems to those born in, say, Indonesia.

RADIO VOICE: 'The rockabilly craze made in Japan. The teenagers make it a carbon copy of anything seen in the USA.'

SPITZER: Why does Western music take over the world? To a certain extent, Western music is a fellow traveler, a passenger of things like money, power, technology, church- a little like the English language or Shakespeare. But it's a two-edged sword because once music is enculturated by another people, it becomes naturalized. Who is to say that once the Aztec Indians have absorbed the Spanish counterpoint, it's no longer Spanish. Even more dramatically, Japan has a tradition where every New Year's Eve they perform Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Beethoven, but also Mozart and Schubert, resonates with a Japanese sensibility for etiquette or formality and respect for tradition. Beethoven's 9th Symphony, which for us is very individualistic, for Japanese culture, is expressing the opposite ethos of social togetherness and an extinction of the ego. It's a much more Zen quality. 

Now what goes round comes round, and what we have now is the return of the repressed, you could say, where Western music has been colonized by two tidal waves flowing across the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. African music, jazz, and rock has become the lingua franca of Western music in American Europe. But even Western music itself has been colonized, if you will, by an Eastern sensibility for time temporality. Look at the music of composers such as as Stockhausen or Pierre Boulez, or going back to Debussy. They discover a different way of thinking about musical time, which they learn through the great exhibitions in Paris- where they come across Gamelan and Japanese music for the first time. They also learn about the self, the ego, Zen, how to express yourself in a different way. But most importantly, they're reacquainted with nature, with sonority, with timbre, and the West is reeducated about sound. In a similar way, the most popular band in the world is BTS, K-pop. Astonishing. 

It's a possibility that with this incredible ubiquity and accessibility of music through the internet, that eventually all our musics will become homogenized into a single thing, into a gray, homogeneous object. I don't think that will happen for one very important reason: Every artist wants to be distinctive. There's a competitive drive which forces people to always turn their back on fashion and create something new. A second reason is that with the big proliferation of genres there are thousands and thousands of genres and sub-genres. Music has always been an extraordinary tool to express human identity, and as long as people have an identity and are different, they will create music to reflect their personality.