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Science proves that music is truly a universal language

Musical genres, tastes, and sounds vary across cultures and serve a wide variety of purposes, from evoking the need to dance to expressing love or lulling a baby to sleep. It is a widely held belief that music is mainly shaped by culture, but researchers from Harvard University weren’t entirely sure that was the whole picture. Throughout the animal kingdom, vocalization carries links between form and function between different species – there’s a reason we experience fear after hearing a bear or lion roar. The researchers wanted to see if this same relationship between form and function was true for our human music.

After analyzing recordings from around the world, the research team found vocal songs tend to sound similar to one another, no matter which culture they come from. Their study involved two separate experiments to determine a relation between form and function in music, and the findings were published in Current Biology.

The first experiment involved 750 internet users in 60 countries being asked to listen to brief song recordings. These sound bites were selected pseudo-randomly from 86 predominantly small-scale societies – from hunter-gatherers to subsistence farmers. After listening to each piece, participants answered six questions indicating what they believe the function of each song to be on a six-point scale. These questions determined the degree to which the listener thought a song was used for dancing, soothing a baby, healing an illness, expressing love, mourning the dead, or telling a story. None of the songs were actually used in mourning or to tell a story, but these answers were included to discourage listeners from assuming each song fit into only four types.

Despite the participants’ lack of familiarity with the songs and their societies of origin, their ratings showed accurate and cross-culturally reliable inferences about the purposes of these songs.

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

In the second experiment, 1,000 internet users from the U.S. and India were asked to rate these same excerpts for three “contextual” features: number of singers, gender of singer(s), and number of instruments. They also rated them for seven “subjective” musical features: melodic complexity, rhythmic complexity, tempo, steady beat, arousal, valence, and pleasantness. The results of this second experiment showed that there was some relationship between these features and song function, but it could not explain the way people in the first experiment reliably detected a song’s function.

Overall, these findings are consistent with the existence of universal links between form and function in vocal music.

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-author Samuel Mehr, also of Harvard University.

The researchers are now conducting these tests in listeners who live in isolated, small-scale societies and have never heard music outside of their own culture. They are also continuing to analyze the music of many cultures in order to figure out how certain musical features relate to function, and whether those features themselves might be universal.

By Connor Ertz, Staff Writer

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