Craig Bennet asks: WHAT IS MUSIC?


photo taken at Crossroads: Guitars and Art, Gilbertsville, PA

by Craig Bennett

One answer to that question was offered by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “Music,” he wrote, “is the universal language of mankind.” And yet, music itself is even more diverse than the thousands of human languages spoken all over the globe. In the United States alone, modern times have brought us such innovations as ragtime, various styles of jazz, rock ’n’ roll, New Age music, and hip-hop. And, like many things American, our popular forms of music have spread throughout the world and have exerted significant influence on the music of other countries.

One of the more unexpected memories of the various hiking trips I’ve made is that of enjoying a delicious meal out on the deck of a rustic cabin, sequestered in a beautiful mountain valley, in the company of a dozen or so fellow hikers. After the meal, while we were finishing off the last couple of bottles of wine, our host (who was also the cook) produced a guitar, sat down on a bench by the cabin door, and invited us all to sing along to John Denver’s “Country Roads”—which we all did rather lustily. But the thing that makes this occasion stand out above many others that I remember is that we were in Romania.

Romania? Indeed. I had come upon an opportunity advertised in the classified section of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s quarterly journal to spend a week hiking in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania. I had never traveled to eastern Europe at that point, and I thought that it might be a good time to do so before it became nearly indistinguishable from the western part of the continent. And it was a good move. Romania had been trying to build a tourist industry as part of its recovery from decades of Russian domination, but it was still obviously recovering. In the countryside beyond the city limits of Brasov, where we were staying, things still appeared much as they must have between the two World Wars.

But my point here is this: who would have expected to find a Romanian cook and folk guitar player who knew the lyrics to all of the most popular John Denver songs? Yet, I was not quite so surprised as I might have been. I’ve learned in my travels over the years that American popular music is not just popular in our own country; it’s popular all over the world (as is the same thing from Britain, at least since the advent of the Beatles and their fellow countrymen who accounted for the “second British invasion” of America back in the nineteen-sixties). Popular music, along with movies, has long been one of our greatest cultural exports, especially in terms of the amount represented, the extent of its global reach, and the enthusiasm with which the youth of other countries—even those very different from our own—have embraced it. Longfellow’s prescience has proven correct beyond anything he could have imagined.

Another rather impressive example I could cite is a brief video, sent to me by a friend, of a string section of violins, violas, and cellos providing the back-up for an Indian sitar (a large, long-necked, guitar-like instrument with movable frets, which can be set for any one of about three hundred different modes), a pair of tablas (small Indian drums much like bongos), and an acoustic guitar. The string players were all dressed uniformly in the white, lightweight trousers and tunics common in India and the Middle East, while the soloists were attired more casually in clothes that were not entirely Western. It was, according to the information that accompanied the video, the Sachal Studios Orchestra of Lahore, Pakistan; and the ensemble was being conducted in the performance of a five-minute arrangement of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”!

A traditional European string section, an Indian sitar and tablas, and an acoustic guitar, all enthusiastically engaged in playing a ground-breaking American jazz composition from the late nineteen-fifties. Longfellow again.

There are apparently three things that can be found to exist in every human culture all over the world and throughout time. They are language, religion, and music. It seems almost preposterous, if not downright disrespectful, to suggest that something we contemporary humans think of as little more than entertainment is as important to us as the language we speak or the understanding of life, death, and the created universe conveyed by our religion. But then, try to imagine your life without music.

-Craig H. Bennett, author of Nights on the Mountain and More Things in Heaven and Earth, available at,, and the Firefly Bookstore, Kutztown, PA

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