Scientists Examine Musical Similarities Across Cultures

Virtually everyone would agree that music is a fundamental part of human existence. In fact, Charles Darwin hypothesized that musical appreciation emerged in human beings before the evolution of language. However, anyone who’s been exposed to music from various cultures knows that there can be tremendous differences in how different populations relate to music, both in terms of its musical composition and the role music plays in people’s lives. That being said, a research team from multiple universities recently engaged in a wide-ranging study of music from around the world in search of similarities between the music of different cultures, and found that different cultures have more musical commonality than one might at first assume. The scientists hope to understand more fundamental qualities of the relationship between human beings and music, and explain what it is about music that speaks so strongly to the human condition.

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In their study, scientists found that certain archetypes of music, whether they be lullabies, dance music, love songs, or healing melodies, emerge in all cultures, suggesting that these different forms of music relate more to the fundamentals of human behavior than to one’s particular social environment. While it should come as no surprise that certain aspects of musical appreciation are hardwired into the human brain, it is perhaps more surprising that similar styles of music independently arise in different cultures to serve similar purposes. And not only do the same kinds of songs show up in different cultures, but these kinds of songs have certain similarities in terms of acoustic features like tone, tempo, and pitch, suggesting that musical composition itself may have deeper roots in the evolution of human beings than previously thought.

If music is to be considered a biological human trait like language, then it follows that music should have universal properties.

The researchers observed both a database of descriptions of songs throughout history as well as recordings of songs from around the world, and analyzed these pieces of music in terms of their structure and composition to determine how they relate to each other. They found that music from all cultures shares the characteristic of the organization of melodies around a hierarchical chord structure. If music is to be considered a biological human trait like language, then it follows that music should have universal properties. The research, published on Thursday, seeks to define the “musical grammar” shared between virtually all human beings.

The researchers compiled 4,709 written accounts of vocal music from 60 societies, and combined them with a wide range of musical recordings, culminating in a database they called the Natural History of Song. As the researchers were concerned with the biological and evolutionary foundations of music, they primarily focused on singing, as singing can be done by virtually anyone and does not require the use of technology like instruments. The researchers used a combination of methods to analyze this massive and varied database; they transcribed the songs with Western notation, and asked 30 expert musicologists as well as hundreds of laypeople to analyze the music and give their commentary.

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The researchers found that fundamentally, songs vary in three ways—formality, religiosity, and level of excitement. By looking at these factors, the researchers were able to predict which genre of music a particular song belongs to. As the study of music has long been compromised by biases resulting from the Western point of view, the researchers made an effort to correct for this bias, even using machine classifiers to categorize the music. However, some musicologists were critical of their approach, noting that the use of Western notation could inherently bias the researchers’ interpretation of the data, and that most of the musicologists involved in the study were of Western origin. That being said, the study likely shows that there is truth not only to the idea that music is a universal aspect of human experience, but that music contains elements which are shared between all human societies, serving an essential social role in each culture.