Scott Aniol: Differences and Universals in Music Across Cultures

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. James 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. (James Dobson, Starting a Seeker Sensitive Service (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 15.)

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.

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Source: Christian Post