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17 Dec 2019 0:24
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  •   Home > News > International

    Human songs are more universal than we might have thought

    There are universal patterns in human songs from across the world's cultures, new research has revealed.

    Do you think you'd be able to distinguish between a love song and a lullaby, if they were sung in a language you don't speak?

    It turns out you probably would, according to new research published in Science today.

    An international team of researchers analysed vocal music from 315 different cultures, stretching back over 100 years, to find out what's universal in the songs we sing.

    They said it's the first "systematic analysis of the features of vocal music found worldwide" or "a natural history of song".

    Using source material from the fields of ethnomusicology and anthropology, the researchers built two databases.

    One of the databases was of ethnographic texts — anthropologists writing down what they see — and the other of audio recordings.

    They then used these databases to investigate big, sweeping questions about the psychology of music.

    One of the things the researchers found is that both people and computers (using machine learning algorithms) can distinguish between different types of songs.

    They're able to pick whether a track is a lullaby, love, dance, or healing song, said psychologist Samuel Mehr of Harvard University, who was the lead author of the study.

    "What this means is there are specific music features that are present in songs, that cue listeners to the fact that they're listening to a lullaby, or listening to a dance song, or a healing song," he said.

    Some of these features are fairly intuitive.

    "Dance songs are uniformly faster than lullabies. Lullabies are uniformly smoother songs, they have smaller melodic intervals than love songs for instance," Dr Mehr said.

    "Healing songs are interesting because we don't really use these in modern environments. They turn up a lot in small-scale societies like in shamanistic healing. They're songs we sing to help a sick person recover."

    Yet listeners who may have never heard one before, still had an intuition for what a healing song was.

    (You can see how well you'd go telling these songs apart by taking the quiz on Dr Mehr's website The Music Lab.)

    The researchers also looked at whether there were consistent ways in which vocal music varied worldwide.

    They found that there was "a ton of diversity" said Dr Mehr, but a good chunk of it seemed to be based on three dimensions: how formal the song was, the level of excitement in the music, and how religious it was.

    And how these musical attributes differ from each other varies more within each society, than between cultures, he said.

    "Every society seems to have some formal and informal songs, some religious and some not religious songs," Dr Mehr said.

    "What that means is that across all societies, a hypothetical song that's kind of average in terms of its formality, that song could plausibly appear anywhere in the world."

    Is music the universal language?

    We've traditionally thought, to borrow the words of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, that "music is the universal language of mankind" (sic), said cognitive scientist Andrew Milne, who wasn't involved in this study.

    However, over the last few years there has been a lot of debate among researchers about the extent to which music has the capacity to speak in a similar way to people from different cultures, Dr Milne of Western Sydney University said.

    "It's actually quite refreshing I think, to have read this paper, which seems to be suggesting that actually there are universal mechanisms for the communication of musical emotions," Dr Milne said.

    For Dr Mehr, the research settles the question of whether music is universal.

    "Of all the places that we looked, how many of them have music?" he said. "The answer is all of them."

    It also opens the door to more tantalising possibilities.

    "What the results suggest is the sort of overarching organisational structure of melodies might be derived from some sort of basic structure of the mind," Dr Mehr said.

    "That's a fairly controversial claim. Until now we haven't really had any reason to believe that … now it's sort of a striking possibility."

    There are many more questions remaining about musical aesthetics, grammar and diversity, including why some parts of the world have more diversity than others, that this paper doesn't answer.

    Dr Milne agreed.

    "It certainly gives a very strong contribution to the general field of cross-cultural music perception, but there is still a huge number of questions and investigations that need to be undertaken," he said.

    There's no accounting for individual tastes

    This research also can't help us explain some people's atrocious taste in music (I'm looking at you sibling), but Dr Mehr said it could be a step towards that goal.

    "One of the long-term goals of any music research I think, is to get a better handle on … what musical preferences are," he said.

    "Getting some of the basic research done is going to help us eventually, to understand a lot of downstream effects that we don't really know much about now."

    And he said the researchers weren't expecting to find so much universality as they did.

    "It's sort of obvious to anybody who listens to music around the world that there's quite a bit of diversity," Dr Mehr said.

    "The more we studied, the more we found really profound similarities across cultures."

    He said the research also suggests that music doesn't serve only one function in society.

    "If we did find one, we shouldn't have seen music turning up in so many varieties and ways consistently worldwide," Dr Mehr said.

    "But I think the bottom line for music in general, is that it's such a complex set of behaviours that there's not going to be any one story that explains it all."


    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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