It sounds from our TV speakers as cameras pan across scenes of unimaginable destruction. It fills gaps between radio news reports of lives lost in the thousands and economic pain to come.

We retreat from stress by playing it on our stereos and pianos. We sing it in our churches and synagogues and mosques.

We have no companion dearer, in these difficult days after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, than music. Barber's "Adagio for Strings" calms our nerves.

Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" stirs our nobility and resolve. The Beatles' "All You Need is Love" and U2's "Peace on Earth" hold out hope for a better world.

Music is hardly the "universal language" of cliche. What speaks to one person may confound or even annoy another. But in very personal ways, we respond to it on deep emotional levels, in places words can't seem to go.

"For so many people, music is a source of comfort," says Dallas Symphony Orchestra music director Andrew Litton. "It's amazing how putting on your favorite song, or whatever, can so often make you feel instantly better or take you out of whatever mood you're in."

It matters not whether the music is high art or a barroom ditty. The tune of "The Star-Spangled Banner" was originally a drinking song. "God Bless America" began life in Irving Berlin's Ziegfield-style revue, "Yap, Yip, Yaphank."

The poetry of "The Star-Spangled Banner" is pretty purple, as is that of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The former's tune, covering an octave and a half, is notoriously unsingable; the latter's is almost a self-parody of dotted and drumbeat rhythms. "Extraordinary," Noel Coward wrote, "how potent cheap music is."

Patriotic songs have put plenty of lumps in our throats and tears in our eyes the past two weeks. With visions of passenger jets slamming into the World Trade Center burned into our retinas, Francis Scott Key's "bombs bursting in air" have taken on tragic new immediacy. No one alive today will ever again sing "America the Beautiful" without wincing at the line "Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears."

Unprecedented in human history, the terrorist attacks have left us feeling defiled and vulnerable. Fearful and angry and frustrated, we face a shadowy enemy. Words, whether threatening or consoling, fail us.

In times like these, even those who recognize no deity find in music--to co-opt a line from the Psalmist--"a very present help in trouble."

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra last weekend was one of doubtless dozens playing Barber's "Adagio for Strings." Broadcast on national radio at the deaths of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, this solemn essay in floating melody, building to an impassioned climax, then relaxing as in benediction, has become our de facto national threnody.

The ethereal Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony has also surfaced here and there. So has Elgar's noble Nimrod, from the Enigma Variations. The New York Philharmonic on Thursday replaced its originally scheduled season-opening program with Brahms' German Requiem, the composer's warm-hearted memorial to his mother.

Like most of us, Darren Keith Woods, the new general director of Fort Worth Opera, spent much of Sept. 11 watching TV. He worried about friends in New York.

"Finally, I had to turn off the TV," he says, "and I put on the Barber Adagio for Strings, and I just cried my eyes out. It was so cathartic.

"Music always imbues me with hope. I have to have it at the end of the day, when my brain is just crazy. That was just the perfect piece for me."

Laurie Shulman, program annotator for the Dallas and Fort Worth symphonies and other concert series, says she relieves anger and frustration by running a few miles. "But when I'm dealing with grief or sadness, I take much more comfort sitting down at the piano and playing Brahms."

Clearly, music can communicate emotion from one person to another. But by the usual standards of transmission, melody, harmony and rhythm are wildly imperfect. For all the analytical studies of Heinrich Schenker and other theorists, we're hard-pressed to agree on the denotation, let alone connotation, of so much as a single phrase.

Music is no more a "universal language" than Urdu. Hip-hop and Hindu ragas are as incomprehensible to me as a Gabriel Faure piano quintet is likely to be to a Zulu tribesman. We can learn new musical languages, just as we can learn new verbal tongues, but we rarely venture far beyond formative experiences.