Some folks say music is a universal language. It has been argued that the popularity of Western music around the world is attributable to people of different cultures all finding the same emotional response to various musical selections, implying happy music, sad music, scary music, etc. are interpreted the same way everywhere. If true, I would think the phenomenon would work both ways and that citizens of the Western world would then interpret music from other lands in the same way the folks to whom such music is native would. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note the similarly in the musical intervals (i.e., the differences in pitch between notes) used in lullabies from around the world.
Interpretation aside, when it comes to appreciation of “foreign” music, the evidence suggests there may indeed be a universality among dedicated listeners from all over the world. Having first been exposed to the instruments used in Western music, from those in the orchestra to those in popular music to those in a jazz ensemble, my first experiences with musical sounds from a kalimba and a shakuhachi and the conglomeration of instruments in a gamelan were akin to viewing a rainbow made up of colors I’d never seen before. Beyond the unfamiliar but entrancing sounds, the music these instruments and ensembles made still enthralled. Though it came from cultures and places unfamiliar to me, and though I may not have responded exactly the way a native listener might, it still touched the spirit. The 16 beat teentaal rhythms of Hindustani music, the ecstatic vocals of Qawwali from south Asia, the tranquility of a master playing Japanese bamboo shakuhachi, the call and response of Haitian mizik rasin (“roots music”), all languages of their own, each new discovery, continuing to this day, pushes the musical horizons outward. (It was only a few years ago that a friend showed me the beauty of Haitian music.)
Paralleling this expansion of musical horizons came a related one in the form of an evolution in how the music arrived. I don’t recall when I first heard the term “high fidelity” but I very much recall how it felt when I first listened to music on my sister’s system, built around Acoustic Research AR-3a loudspeakers. Suddenly, every recording I listened to revealed a lot more of the music, intensifying the entire experience to a degree I’d never imagined. It was so much easier to hear all the component parts of a musical composition, all the separate vocalists and players as individuals contributing to the ensemble sound. There was more of each individual instrument to be heard than I was used to from listening via radios or the compact record player that first introduced me to music. Rather than the simple outlines of the sound of a kalimba, there was a sense of the player’s thumbs pressing and releasing the metal tines. This was a profound increase in how much more of the music captured in a recording could be available to the listener. I was finding there was much more to be heard in every recording I played. Now, in addition to the music and the means by which it is captured by recordings, I was absorbed by the idea that playback of those recordings could be of a much higher order than I’d previously experienced, than what had already captured my imagination and my heart.