Music, songs from diverse cultures feature universal commonalities

By Brooks Hays
Music, songs from diverse cultures feature universal commonalities
Researcher shows that music from one culture can easily be understood by people in another culture. Photo by StockSnap/Pixabay

Nov. 22 (UPI) -- New research suggests music really is a universal language.

The search for universality has previously been dismissed by ethnomusicologists. In the 1970s, during a lecture at Harvard, the famed composer called "universality" a "big word, and a dangerous one."


But new analysis suggests universality can be found in song, as music produced by different cultures features similar aural elements -- enough that the moods, meanings and purposes of songs from one culture can be understood by listeners from another.

For the new study, reviewed this week in the journal Science, scientists classified the functions of songs from different cultures across the globe. Some songs, scientists determined, accompany a dance, while others work to calm an infant or express love.

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Scientists determined that songs with the same function sound similar regardless of the culture from which they originate.

"Despite the staggering diversity of music influenced by countless cultures and readily available to the modern listener, our shared human nature may underlie basic musical structures that transcend cultural differences," lead study author Samuel Mehr, researcher at Harvard University, said in a news release.


Previously, many researchers have argued that music is primarily shaped by culture, limiting the universality of song. But studies have shown the form and function of many animal vocalizations translate across species. Lion roars and eagle screeches, for example, are interpreted as hostile sounds by humans unaccustomed to such sounds.

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The latest research suggests songs share similar cross-cultural links.

"We show that our shared psychology produces fundamental patterns in song that transcend our profound cultural differences," said Manvir Singh, study co-author and Harvard researcher. "This suggests that our emotional and behavioral responses to aesthetic stimuli are remarkably similar across widely diverging populations."

For the study, researchers had 750 listeners in 60 countries listen to 14-second snippets of songs, which were randomly selected from a catalogue featuring mostly the music of small-scale societies and isolated cultures -- hunter-gatherers, pastoralists and subsistence farmers.

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The listeners were asked to determine the song's primary purpose: for dancing, to soothe a baby, to heal illness, to express love for another person, to mourn the dead or to tell a story. None of the songs were used for mourning or to tell a story, but scientists didn't want listeners to assume there were only four types of songs.


The results of the initial test showed listeners from different cultures made the same -- mostly accurate -- inferences about the purpose of different songs.

In a followup test, listeners were asked to determine which contextual components informed their classification of each song; number of singers, gender of singers, and number of instruments. Listeners also rated the importance of a song's musical features in communicating its purpose, scoring features like: melodic complexity, rhythmic complexity, tempo, steady beat, arousal, valence and pleasantness.

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The second test showed listeners from different cultures keyed in on similar features when interpreting and inferring the functions of different songs. However, the similarities weren't enough to account for the reliably with which listeners identified a song's function in the first test.

Listeners were most adept at differentiating between songs for dance, which were generally happier, faster and more rhythmic, and lullabies, which were rated as slower and sadder.

"Not only were users best at identifying songs used for those functions, but their musical features seem to oppose each other in many ways," Mehr said.

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