Leonard Bernstein on the Universal Linguistics of Music

The Chomskian approach of the “universal grammar” of language has been applied to many human phenomenon, including morality and music.  For instance, it has been well established by both laboratory psychologists and anthropologists that the five-note pentatonic scale is a human universal, and can be found in musics from every corner of the globe (some recent research even asserts that when babies and their mothers communicate, they often use the pentatonic scale).  In 1973, Leonard Bernstein gave a six-part lecture at Harvard University, and in this clip (6:10), he explains how children around the world tease one another (‘nanana’) using three specific harmonic intervals — intervals that are part of that pentatonic scale.  If you have the time (6 hours, that is), make sure to check out the rest of his lectures on “Musical Phonology,” all of which are on youtube.

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Sam McDougle

SAM MCDOUGLE is a Ph.D. candidate in Psychology and Neuroscience at Princeton University. His writing has appeared in Vice and The Atlantic.

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