"Consider this experiment. Place any person from nearly any culture in a locked room. Play a piece of music written in any style. It might, at first, seem as alien and incomprehensible as an untranslated copy of Tolstoy's 'War and Peace' for a non- Russian speaker. But while the novel could be understood only if a dictionary was provided, for the music no dictionary is necessary. As the composition is heard again and again, it gradually begins to make sense. The listener starts to hear similarities and differences; complex textures become familiar; rhythmic variations take shape. The music essentially teaches itself. It does so by revealing patterns of repetition and change...
Then, as other compositions are heard, the listener begins to assess the patterns being heard: this piece 'works,' that one is crude, this one resembles something already known, that one is extraordinarily difficult to understand. Yes, if the listener knows about the composer who wrote the work, the community that performed it, the era in which it was written, the nature of its audiences and its relationship to its musical tradition, yes, of course, the listening will be more comprehensive, the particular nature of the patterns will be better understood. But stripped of all this apparatus, a meaning can still be transmitted.
This experiment does not require a radical feat of the imagination. It is, after all, how Western popular music has become a lingua franca in cultures with very different ideas of song (and vice versa); it is also how Chinese opera and Indian ragas become familiar to Western listeners. And it means that one important aspect of music is indeed... autonomous, free of a particular time and place. It is an aspect of music that is transcendental."
Edward Rothstein - NY Times 20 December 2000