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The Music between Us

Is Music a Universal Language?

From our first social bonding as infants to the funeral rites that mark our passing, music plays an important role in our lives, bringing us closer to one another. In The Music between Us, philosopher Kathleen Marie Higgins investigates this role, examining the features of human perception that enable music’s uncanny ability to provoke, despite its myriad forms across continents and throughout centuries, the sense of a shared human experience.
                Drawing on disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, musicology, linguistics, and anthropology, Higgins’s richly researched study showcases the ways music is used in rituals, education, work, healing, and as a source of security and—perhaps most importantly—joy. By participating so integrally in such meaningful facets of society, Higgins argues, music situates itself as one of the most fundamental bridges between people, a truly cross-cultural form of communication that can create solidarity across political divides. Moving beyond the well-worn takes on music’s universality, The Music between Us provides a new understanding of what it means to be musical and, in turn, human. 

296 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2012

Language and Linguistics: Anthropological/Sociological Aspects of Language

Music: General Music

Philosophy: General Philosophy


The Music between Us approaches the question of music through a vast amount of recent and fascinating work that implicates, if not demonstrates, music’s central place in human nature: thought, feeling, synthesthesia, language, and community. It eschews claims of metaphysical essence or universals, instead speaking to deep and normative aspects of the musical in human life and behavior. Assembling an extraordinary amount of data and result from cognitive psychology, anthropology, linguistics, neuroscience, ethnomusicology, and sociology, Kathleen Higgins’s book is worth reading purely for its compendium effect.”--Daniel Herwitz, author of Aesthetics

Daniel Herwitz

The Music between Us is attractive and important not only because its philosophical arguments encompass music from all around the world and are informed by recent data from the sciences but above all for its warm, humanist perspective on the centrality and universality of music in human life. Kathleen Higgins’ fascinating account considers music in relation to language, cross-cultural communication, and the emotional responses it calls forth, including how it anchors individuals to their world and serves as a balm to social discord. Here is a refreshing alternative to the narrow formalism that is so common in music aesthetics. A must read for anyone who has been intrigued by the way music beguiles us.”--Stephen Davies, author of Musical Understandings

Stephen Davies

“A significant contribution to the burgeoning field of philosophy of music. With uncommon scholarly breadth and sensitivity, The Music between Us explores the age-old comparison between music and language—two of the most powerful and enduringly mysterious manifestations of human intelligence—turning the comparison inside out like a reversible raincoat, and showing how music can support both cultural diversity and cross-cultural appreciation of our essential humanity.”--Joel Rudinow, author of Soul Music

Joel Rudinow

“Kathleen Marie Higgins’ The Music between Us provides a masterful, big-picture look at the concept of universals in music. In this eloquently written book, Higgins bridges musical aesthetics, ethnomusicology, and psychology as she urges us to listen outside our culture, and to share the ongoingness of life by participating in something larger than ourselves. Synthesizing significant research from numerous disciplines, and displaying musical examples from across the globe, The Music between Us indeed helps us know ourselves as joyous ‘musical animals.’”

Jennifer Judkins, UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music

The Music between Us is an intellectual tour de force. While anti-essentialist views of art and culture have revealed many new insights about the diversity of human experience and values, Kathleen Higgins reminds us that an emphasis on differences can lose sight of our mutual humanity. In lucid prose, she explores the significance of our musicality and the range of ways that music can bridge our differences.  I learned something new on almost every page.”

Theodore Gracyk, co-editor of The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Music

“Higgins has written a wonderfully comprehensive book about nothing less than to what extent music is a universal phenomenon….The author contends that though there appears to be dramatic variation across cultures, music universally reflects humans’ common ways of behaving—for instance, in connection with longing and mourning—and serves to physically instruct one on how to comport oneself in society. Higgins’ love of music and cultural variety is evident throughout. She writes in a relaxed, accessible, sophisticated style that makes the book useful to both inexperienced readers and specialists…. A welcome contribution to cross-cultural (and cross-species) philosophy of music….Highly recommended.”

P. Jenkins | Choice

“Higgins acts as a generous, perspicacious guide through this complex interdisciplinary field of theories both illuminating and reactionary.”

Times Higher Education

“Of late, a fair bit of musical aesthetics has been afflicted by cleverness. Higgins’s work, I am delighted to say, is not of this kind. Those who, like Higgins, deeply love music, actually know something about it, have open minds and ears, and are willing to look beyond the confines of Western aesthetics (incidentally not the indigenous aesthetics of the overwhelming majority of the world’s seven billion plus people) will find much to learn in The Music between Us. For showing us that there is a rich world out there beyond Western music, we should all be grateful to Higgins.”

Saam Trivedi | Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism

“Though it takes the question of musical universality as its subtitle, The Music between Us does not really set out to answer it, at least not in the conventional sense. As Higgins’s brief summaries of prior discussions of music’s universality make clear, people have been so busy answering the question that they failed to really ask it; as a philosopher, Higgins sets out to do precisely that. She interrogates the terms of the question and turns it on its head in order to get at her primary goal, to argue that music can be a means to recognize and experience common humanity, even across divides.”


Table of Contents


1    Other People’s Music
2     Musical Animals
3    What’s Involved in Sounding Human?
4    Cross-Cultural Understanding
5    The Music of Language
6    Musical Synesthesia
7    A Song in Your Heart
8    Comfort and Joy
9    Beyond Ethnocentrism



American Society of Aesthetics: American Society of Aesthetics Outstanding Monograph

Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

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