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Music Really Is A Universal Language

Every culture enjoys music and song, and songs serve many different purposes: accompanying a dance, soothing an infant, or expressing love. Now, after analyzing recordings from all around the world, researchers report that vocal songs sharing one of those many functions tend to sound similar to one another, no matter which culture they come from.

As a result, people listening to those songs in any one of 60 countries could make accurate inferences about them, even after hearing only a quick 14-second sampling.

The findings, published in Current Biology, are consistent with the existence of universal links between form and function in vocal music, the researchers say.

“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,” says co-first author of the study, Samuel Mehr, director of the Music Lab at Harvard University.

“We show that our shared psychology produces fundamental patterns in song that transcend our profound cultural differences,” adds co-first author Manvir Singh, also at Harvard. “This suggests that our emotional and behavioral responses to aesthetic stimuli are remarkably similar across widely diverging populations.”

In their first experiment, Mehr and Singh’s team asked 750 internet users in 60 countries to listen to brief, 14-second excerpts of songs. The songs were selected pseudo-randomly from 86 predominantly small-scale societies, including hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and subsistence farmers. Those songs also spanned a wide array of geographic areas designed to reflect a broad sampling of human cultures.

After listening to each excerpt, participants answered six questions indicating their perceptions of the function of each song on a six-point scale. Those questions evaluated the degree to which listeners believed that each song was used (1) for dancing, (2) to soothe a baby, (3) to heal illness, (4) to express love for another person, (5) to mourn the dead, and (6) to tell a story. (In fact, none of the songs were used in mourning or to tell a story. Those answers were included to discourage listeners from an assumption that only four song types were actually present.)

In total, participants listened to more than 26,000 excerpts and provided more than 150,000 ratings (six per song). The data show that, despite participants’ unfamiliarity with the societies represented, the random sampling of each excerpt, their very short duration, and the enormous diversity of this music, the ratings demonstrated accurate and cross-culturally reliable inferences about song functions on the basis of song forms alone.

Mehr and Singh say that one of the most intriguing findings relates to the relationship between lullabies and dance songs. “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 says. Dance songs were generally faster, rhythmically and melodically complex, and perceived by participants as “happier” and “more exciting”; lullabies, on the other hand, were slower, rhythmically and melodically simple, and perceived as “sadder” and “less exciting.”

The researchers say they are now conducting these tests in listeners who live in isolated, small-scale societies and have never heard music other than that of their own cultures.

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