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Is Music a Universal Language?

In the third 'Listening Service' linking with the BBC's Civilisations series, Tom Service asks whether music really is a universal language.

What is music good for? In our concluding link with the BBC's Civilisations season, The Listening Service asks one of the most fundamental questions we can about music, a claim often made on the art-form's behalf in a list of reasons why it's an essential good: is music a universal language?

It's a seductive idea, that music's primal activation of the world of our emotions, bypassing the rationalising parts of our brains, means that it has an essential communicative function that carries across cultures in the way that no other phenomenon of the human imagination can. Music binds us together, because Beethoven and the blues sound the same and mean the same whether you're listening in Oklahoma or Osaka.

It's a nice theory, but on The Listening Service, we'll reveal the limits of these claims to the universal. And we'll suggest that music separates and defines us just as much as it brings us together. Not giving the game away, but music isn't a universal language: it's much, much more powerful than that - as we'll discover!

Available now

29 minutes

Music Played

  • Ludwig van Beethoven

    Symphony no. 6, Op.68 "Pastoral", 1st movement; Erwachen heiterer Gefuhle...

    Performer: Tonhalle Orchester Zürich. Performer: David Zinman.
    • Arte Nova Classics.
  • Bernie Leadon

    The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy: Journey Of The Sorcerer

    Performer: The Eagles.
    • Asylum Records .
  • Ludwig van Beethoven

    Symphony no. 9 in D minor , Op. 125 "Choral", 4th movement; Presto - allegro assai

    Performer: Gilles Cachemaille. Performer: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. Performer: Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
    • Archiv.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven

    Fidelio - Act 2: No. 16 Finale: Heil sei dem Tag

    Performer: Arnold Schönberg Chor. Performer: Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Performer: Claudio Abbado.
    • Decca.
  • Traditional

    Teaching the Daughter from the opera Qin Xumei

    Performer: Yan Lipin.
    • Marco Polo.
  • Traditional

    Raga Desi, gat section

    Performer: Ravi Shankar Group.
    • Eurotrend.
  • Traditional

    Mbenzele Pygmies

    Performer: Mbenzele Pygmies.
    • Inedit.
  • Traditional

    Snoshti sum minal (Bulgaria)

    Performer: Perunika Trio.
    • Arc Music.
  • Traditional


    Performer: Joji Hirota & the Taiko Drummers.
    • Arc Music.
  • George Frideric Handel

    Messiah Part 2, no.42 - Hallelujah Chorus

    Performer: Monteverdi Choir. Performer: English Baroque Soloists. Performer: Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
    • Philips.
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

    Dies irae; Tuba mirum from Requiem

    Performer: Accentus. Performer: Insula Orchestra. Performer: Laurence Equilbey.
    • NAIVE.
  • Giovanni Battista Pergolesi

    Stabat mater in F minor - 1st movement Dolorosa

    Performer: Andreas Scholl. Performer: Barbara Bonney. Performer: Les Talens Lyriques. Performer: Christophe Rousset.
    • Decca.
  • John Wilbye

    Lady, when I behold from Madrigals, Book 1

    Performer: Con Anima Chamber Choir. Performer: Divine Art.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven

    A Fifth of Beethoven

    Performer: Walter Murphy. Performer: Big Apple Band.
    • RSO Records.
  • Ludwig van Beethoven

    Symphony no. 5 in C minor, Op.67 - 1st movement; Allegro con brio

    Performer: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Performer: Sir Simon Rattle.
    • EMI.
  • Philp Glass and Ravi Shankar

    Ragas in Minor Scale

    Performer: Ravi Shankar. Performer: Philip Glass Ensemble.
    • Private Music.


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