Sharing Elements: The Universality of Music

by Marianne Ploger


To me, there’s little doubt that music is a universal language which communicates meaning to us all, even though we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg in understanding how music works. Whenever I hear music—any music, from anywhere in the world—I marvel at its power to take me on a mystical journey through time and space. From Balinese gamelan music, to Irish fiddle music, to bluegrass music, to country music, to show tunes, to Zen meditation music, to the symphonies of Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, and beyond, I love them all. Listening to these musics is like experiencing cuisine from the most exotic to the most comfortably familiar. Some music is thought provoking and challenging while other music is nurturing and heartwarming. Why does some music rile us to action while other music placates us? Why does some music make us feel amorous and other music makes us feel ennobled and courageous? Why does some music leave us cold while other music makes us thirst for more?

From my work teaching, researching, and observing over the past decades, I have found that there are causes for the effects we experience when hearing music. In the same way that a master chef can predict the taste outcomes of any combination of culinary ingredients, combinations of pitches, intervals, and rhythms create musical outcomes that can be predicted equally well by one who is thoroughly familiar with the musical ingredients.

With so many musical genres available in our global community, it is incredible to think that such diverse music is created from so few basic musical elements. Yet, I find again and again that the beauty of music lies in its confluence of essential simplicity and complex dimensionality. It is amazing how so few things can serve as the building materials for such widely different musical genres. 

Because we can learn to identify pitches, intervals, and rhythms by ear, we can be well on our way to understanding those essential musical ingredients. If we want to go still further, we can learn to understand how these basic elements combine to create predictable scales, harmonies, and polyrhythms. Those who wish to go further yet and become master musical “chefs” can learn to encode and decode these elements using a musical staff and to create their own musical recipes that are both tasty and nutritional to the souls of listeners. 

The greatest chefs and the greatest musicians understand how and why certain combinations are highly effective while others are unsavory. My husband, Keith Hill, coined the term “Aesthetic Scientists” to describe such masterful craftsmen. These individuals seek to consciously understand how the primary elements of their craft interact with the senses and to develop their skill and finesse broadly and in real time, eventually transforming aesthetic science into art. 

My goal with this website is to provide the tools to intelligently, compassionately, and scrupulously explore how music works and why it moves us as it does. In so doing, I hope to bring aesthetic science to art and in turn, art to science.