Music Is Truly a Universal Language: New Research Shows That Music Worldwide Has Important Commonalities

Photo by Jo Dusepo, via Wikimedia Commons

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s description of music as a universal language has become a well-worn cliché, usually uttered in a sentimental and not particularly serious way. Maybe this is why it doesn't inspire a corresponding breadth of appreciation for the music of the world. We are conditioned and acculturated, it can seem, by formative experience to gravitate toward certain kinds of music. We can expand our tastes but that usually requires some careful study and acculturation.

In the sciences, the “universal language” hypothesis in music has been taken far more seriously, and, more recently, so has its critique. “In ethnomusicology,” notes the Universitat Wien’s Medienportal, “universality became something of a dirty word.” The diversity of world music is profound, as Kevin Dickinson writes at Big Think.

Katajjaq, or Inuit throat singing, expresses playfulness in strong, throaty expressions. Japan's nogaku punctuates haunting bamboo flutes with the stiff punctuation of percussion. South of Japan, the Australian Aborigines also used winds and percussions, yet their didgeridoos and clapsticks birthed a distinct sound. And the staid echoes of medieval Gregorian chant could hardly be confused for a rousing track of thrash metal.

The idea that all of these kinds of music and thousands more are all the same in some way strikes many as “groundless or even offensive.” But even hardcore skeptics might be persuaded by papers published just last month in Science.




University of Vienna Cognitive Biologists W. Tecumseh Fitch and Tudor Popescu begin their article “The World in a Song” with a brief sketch of the history of “the empirical quest for musical universals.” The search began in Berlin in 1900, almost as soon as phonographs could be used to record music. The Nazis stamped out this research in Germany in the 1930s, though it flourished in the U.S.—in the work of Alan Lomax, for example. Yet “by the 1970s ethnomusicologists were discouraged from even discussing musical ‘universals.'"

Nonetheless, as a team of researchers led by Harvard’s Samuel Mehr show in their paper “Universality and Diversity in Human Song,” there are indeed universal musical qualities, though they manifest in some specific ways. Using the “tools of computational social science” to analyze a huge archive of audio recordings of world music, the researchers found that “identifiable acoustic features of songs (accent, tempo, pitch range, etc.) predict their primary behavioral context (love, healing, etc.)." Societies around the world use similar musical properties to accompany similar emotional contexts, in other words.

Moreover, the meta-analysis found that “melodic and rhythmic bigrams fall into power-law distributions” and “tonality is widespread, perhaps universal.” Focusing primarily on vocal song, since instrumentation varied too widely, the scientists tested “five sets of hypotheses about universality and variability in musical behavior and musical forms.” All of these analyses make use of ethnographic data. Critics might point out that such data is riddled with bias.

Ethnographers, from the purely academic to popular curators like Lomax, applied their own filters, choosing what to record and what to ignore based on their own assumptions about what matters in music. Nonetheless, Mehr and his co-authors write that they have adjusted for “sampling error and ethnographer bias, problems that have bedeviled prior tests." Their methodology is rigorous, and their conclusions are backed by some dense analytics.

It would indeed seem from their exhaustive research that, in many respects, music is genuinely universal. The findings should not surprise us. Humans, after all, are biologically similar across the globe, with generally the same propensities for language learning and all the other things that humans universally do. Many previous comparative projects in history have used generalizations to create racial hierarchies and attempt to show the superiority of one culture or another. “Universality is a big word,” said Leonard Bernstein, “and a dangerous one”—a word beloved by empires throughout time.

But the data-driven approach used by the most recent studies adheres more closely to the science. Wide variation is a given, and several indicators show great “variability across cultures” when it comes to music, as the introduction to “Universality and Diversity in Human Song” acknowledges. Nonetheless, forms of music appear in every human society, accompanying ceremonies, rituals, and rites. Echoing the conclusions of modern genetics, the authors point out that “there is more variation in musical behavior within societies than between societies.” Read Mehr and his team’s study here.

via Big Think

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch a Hand-Drawn Animation of Neil Gaiman’s Poem “The Mushroom Hunters,” Narrated by Amanda Palmer

The arrival of a newborn son has inspired no few poets to compose works preserving the occasion. When Neil Gaiman wrote such a poem, he used its words to pay tribute to not just the creation of new life but to the scientific method as well. "Science, as you know, my little one, is the study / of the nature and behavior of the universe," begins Gaiman's "The Mushroom Hunters." An important thing for a child to know, certainly, but Gaiman doesn't hesitate to get into even more detail: "It’s based on observation, on experiment, and measurement / and the formulation of laws to describe the facts revealed." Go slightly over the head of a newborn as all this may, any parent of an older but still young child knows what question naturally comes next: "Why?"

As if in anticipation of that inevitable expression of curiosity, Gaiman harks back to "the old times," when "men came already fitted with brains / designed to follow flesh-beasts at a run," and with any luck to come back with a slain antelope for dinner. The women, "who did not need to run down prey / had brains that spotted landmarks and made paths between them," taking special note of the spots where they could find mushrooms. It was these mushroom hunters who used "the first tool of all," a sling to hold the baby but also to "put the berries and the mushrooms in / the roots and the good leaves, the seeds and the crawlers. / Then a flint pestle to smash, to crush, to grind or break." But how to know which of the mushrooms — to say nothing of the berries, roots, and leaves — will kill you, which will "show you gods," and which will "feed the hunger in our bellies?"




"Observe everything." That's what Gaiman's poem recommends, and what it memorializes these mushroom hunters for having done: observing the conditions under which mushrooms aren't deadly to eat, observing childbirth to "discover how to bring babies safely into the world," observing everything around them in order to create "the tools we make to build our lives / our clothes, our food, our path home..." In Gaiman's poetic view, the observations and formulations made by these early mushroom-hunting women to serve only the imperative of survival lead straight (if over a long distance), to the modern scientific enterprise, with its continued gathering of facts, as well as its constant proposal and revision of laws to describe the patterns in those facts.

You can see "The Mushroom Hunters" brought to life in the video above, a hand-drawn animation by Creative Connection scored by the composer Jherek Bischoff (previously heard in the David Bowie tribute Strung Out in Heaven). You can read the poem at Brain Pickings, whose creator Maria Popova hosts "The Universe in Verse," an annual "charitable celebration of science through poetry" where "The Mushroom Hunters" made its debut in 2017. There it was read aloud by the musician Amanda Palmer, Gaiman's wife and the mother of the aforementioned son, and so it is in this more recent animated video. Young Ash will surely grow up faced with few obstacles to the appreciation of science, and even less so to the kind of imagination that science requires. As for all the other children in the world — well, it certainly wouldn't hurt to show them the mushroom hunters at work.

This reading will be added to our collection, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

via Brain Pickings

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinemaand the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future? Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

An Illustrated Map of Every Known Object in Space: Asteroids, Dwarf Planets, Black Holes & Much More

Name all the things in space in 20 minutes. Impossible, you say? Well, if there’s anyone who might come close to summarizing the contents of the universe in less than half an hour, with the aid of a handy infographic map also available as a poster, it's physicist Dominic Walliman, who has explored other vast scientific regions in condensed, yet comprehensive maps on physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, and computer science.

These are all academic disciplines with more or less defined boundaries. But space? It’s potentially endless, a point Walliman grants up front. Space is “infinitely big and there are an infinite number of things in it," he says. However, these things can still be named and categorized, since “there are not an infinite number of different kinds of things.” We begin at home, so to speak, with the Earth, our Sun, the solar system (and a dog), and the planets: terrestrial, gas, and ice giant.




Asteroids, meteors, comets, dwarf planets, moons, the Kuyper Belt, Dort Cloud, and heliosphere, cosmic dust, black holes…. We’re only two minutes in and that’s a lot of things already—but it’s also a lot of kinds of things, and those kinds repeat over and over. The supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way may be a type representing a whole class of things “at the center of every galaxy."

The universe might contain an infinite number of stars—or a number so large it might as well be infinite. But that doesn’t mean we can’t extrapolate from the comparatively tiny number we’re able to observe as representative of general star behavior: from the “main sequence stars”—Red, Orange, and Yellow Dwarves (like our sun)—to blue giants to variable stars, which pulsate and change in size and brightness.

Massive Red Giants explode into nebulae at the end of their 100 million to 2 billion year lives. They also, along with Red and Orange Dwarf stars, leave behind a core known as a White Dwarf, which will become a Black Dwarf, which does not exist yet because the universe it not old enough to have produced any. “White dwarves,” Walliman says, “will be the fate of 97% of the stars in the universe." The number of kinds of stars expands, we get into the different shapes galaxies can take, and learn about cosmic radiation and “mysteries.”

This project does not have the scope to include explanations of how we know about these many kinds of space objects, but Walliman does an excellent job of turning what may be the biggest picture imaginable into a thumbnail—or poster-sized (purchase here, download here)—outline of the universe. We cannot ask more from a twenty-minute video promising to name “Every Kind of Thing in Space.”

See other science-defining video maps, all written, researched, animated, edited, and scored by Walliman, at the links below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Stephen Hawking’s Black Hole Paradox Explained in Animation

Many of us have heard of Stephen Hawking but know him only as a symbol of a powerful mind dedicated for a lifetime to the thorniest problems in astrophysics. Even more of us have heard of black holes but know of them only as those dangerous things in sci-fi movies that suck in spaceships. But if we gain an understanding of Hawking's work on black holes, however basic, we gain a much clearer view of both entities and what they mean to the human endeavor of grasping the workings of reality. What it all has to do with "one of the biggest paradoxes in the universe," and why that paradox "threatens to unravel modern science," provide the subject matter for the animated TED-Ed lesson above.

In order to explain what's called the "Black Hole Information Paradox," astrophysicist Fabio Pacucci must first explain "information," which in this usage constitutes every part of the reality in which we live. "Typically, the information we talk about is visible to the naked eye," he says. "This kind of information tells us that an apple is red, round, and shiny." But what physicists care about is "quantum information," which "refers to the quantum properties of all the particles that make up that apple, such as their position, velocity and spin." The particles that make up every object of the universe have "unique quantum properties," and the laws of physics as currently understood hold that "the total amount of quantum information in the universe must be conserved."




Smash the apple into sauce, in other words, and you don't create or destroy any quantum information, you just move it around. But in the parts of spacetime with gravity so strong that nothing can escape them, better known as black holes, that particular law of physics may not apply. "When an apple enters a black hole, it seems as though it leaves the universe, and all its quantum information becomes irretrievably lost," says Pacucci. "However, this doesn’t immediately break the laws of physics. The information is out of sight, but it might still exist within the black hole’s mysterious void."

Then we have Hawking Radiation, the eponymous genius' contribution to the study of black holes, which shows that "black holes are gradually evaporating," losing mass over "incredibly long periods of time" in such a way that suggests that "a black hole and all the quantum information it contains could be completely erased" in the process. What might go into the black hole as an apple's information doesn't come out looking like an apple's information. Quantum information seems to be destroyed by black holes, yet everything else about quantum information tells us it can't be destroyed: like any paradox, or contradiction between two known or probable truths, "the destruction of information would force us to rewrite some of our most fundamental scientific paradigms."

But for a scientist in the Hawking mold, this difficulty just makes the chase for knowledge more interesting. Pacucci cites a few hypotheses: that "information actually is encoded in the escaping radiation, in some way we can’t yet understand," that "the paradox is just a misunderstanding of how general relativity and quantum field theory interact, that "a solution to this and many other paradoxes will come naturally with a 'unified theory of everything,'" and most boldly that, because "the 2D surface of an event horizon" — the inescapable edge of a black hole — "can store quantum information," the boundary of the observable universe "is also a 2D surface encoded with information about real, 3D objects," implying that "reality as we know it is just a holographic projection of that information." Big if true, as they say, but as Hawking seems to have known, the truth about our reality is surely bigger than any of us can yet imagine.

via Brain Pickings

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Nikola Tesla Accurately Predicted the Rise of the Internet & Smart Phone in 1926

Certain cult historical figures have served as prescient avatars for the techno-visionaries of the digital age. Where the altruistic utopian designs of Buckminster Fuller provided an ideal for the first wave of Silicon Valley pioneers (a group including computer scientist and philosopher Jaron Lanier and Wired editor Kevin Kelly), later entrepreneurs have hewn closer to the principles of brilliant scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla, who believed, as he told Liberty magazine in 1935, that “we suffer the derangement of our civilization because we have not yet completely adjusted ourselves to the machine age.”

Such an adjustment would come, Tesla believed, only in “mastering the machine”—and he seemed to have supreme confidence in human mastery—over food production, climate, and genetics. We would be freed from onerous labor by automation and the creation of “a thinking machine” he said, over a decade before the invention of the computer. Tesla did not anticipate the ways such machines would come to master us, even though he cannily foresaw the future of wireless technology, computing, and telephony, technologies that would radically reshape every aspect of human life.




In an earlier, 1926, interview in Colliers magazine, Tesla predicted, as the editors wrote, communicating “instantly by simple vest-pocket equipment.” His actual words conveyed a much grander, and more accurate, picture of the future.

When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is…. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket. 

The complexity of smart phones far outstrips that of the telephone, but in every other respect, Tesla’s picture maps onto the reality of almost 100 years later. Other aspects of Tesla’s future scenario for wireless also seem to anticipate current technologies, like 3D printing, though the kind he describes still remains in the realm of science fiction: “Wireless will achieve the closer contact through transmission of intelligence, transport of our bodies and materials and conveyance of energy.”

But Tesla’s vision had its limitations, and they lay precisely in his techno-optimism. He never met a problem that wouldn’t eventually have a technological solution (and like many other techno-visionaries of the time, he heartily endorsed state-sponsored eugenics). “The majority of the ills from which humanity suffers,” he said, “are due to the immense extent of the terrestrial globe and the inability of individuals and nations to come into close contact.”

Wireless technology, thought Tesla, would help eradicate war, poverty, disease, pollution, and general discontent, when were are “able to witness and hear events—the inauguration of a President, the playing of a world series game, the havoc of an earthquake or the terror of a battle—just as though we were present.” When international boundaries are “largely obliterated” by instant communication, he believed, “a great step will be made toward the unification and harmonious existence of the various races inhabiting the globe.”

Tesla did not, and perhaps could not, foresee the ways in which technologies that bring us closer together than ever also, and at the same time, pull us ever further apart. Read Tesla's full interview here, in which he also predicts that women will become the "superior sex," not by virtue of "the shallow physical imitation of men" but through "the awakening of the intellect."

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

David Lynch Visualizes How Transcendental Meditation Works with Sharpie & Big Pad of Paper

Second only to the Beatles, David Lynch has become synonymous with the practice of Transcendental Meditation. And while the results were certainly mixed for the Fab Four, Lynch, in all his idiosyncrasies, has become the face of TM. He didn’t dabble with it mid-career. Instead, meditation helped create his career, as both his practice and the filming of Eraserhead started around 1972.

“...[L]ooking back,” he said in a Daily Beast interview in 2014, “I was filled with anger and took it out on my first wife and made her life miserable. I had a low-grade depression, and wasn’t really self-assured. If I’d gone forward without the ability to transcend every day, I think the pressures of the business could’ve gotten me.”




His career has been transcendent for sure, and as head of his eponymous foundation, he’s spreading the word, bringing TM to schools and calling in fellow creatives to extol its virtues.

But how does Lynch himself explain Transcendental Meditation? In this video, Lynch, armed with a pad of paper and a Sharpie, takes us on a scientific journey down past atoms and protons, and down to the unified field theory of quantum physics. A “no-thing” out of which all matter emerges. Scientists can’t take us into the unified field...but the mind can. Hence, meditation.

“The mantra is the key that opens the door,” he explains. (What is that mantra? It’s a personal one that the Maharishi, or someone high on the TM chain will give you after training...if you believe the TM pitch. Not everybody believes it needs be so proprietary, or expensive.)

With a mantra the mind can dive deep and then deeper: “Each deeper level of mind and each deeper level of intellect has more happiness,” he says. Go deep enough and the mind hits the equivalent of the unified field, and there…transcendence.

“Pure, unbounded, infinite consciousness...” he promises. “Transcendental meditation is just the vehicle to get you here.”

This can’t be the first time Lynch has drawn this diagram, but it really is one of the best visualizations of how science and meditation have arrived at the same conclusion. And it's also why science is now studying the effects of meditation on the brain. For those looking for more on Lynch and meditation, we have you covered.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

What to Wear to a Successful PhD Thesis Defense? A Skirt’s Worth of Academic Rejection Letters

Some people are paralyzed by rejection.

Others, like Michigan State University’s Earth and Environmental Sciences PhD candidate, Caitlin Kirby, sport rejection like a mantle of honor... or more accurately, a pleated skirt falling to just below mid-thigh.

"Successfully defended my PhD dissertation today!" Kirby wrote in a Tweet that has since garnered over 25,000 likes. "In the spirit of acknowledging & normalizing failure in the process, I defended in a skirt made of rejection letters from the course of my PhD."

The custom garment, which Kirby teamed with a dark blazer and red waistband, was organized in two tiers, with a tulle ruffle peeping out beneath.

MSU’s Career Services Network’s Director of Employer Relations, Karin Hanson, told the Lansing State Journal that rejection comes as a shock to many high achieving MSU students.

Kirby’s decision to upcycle 17 disappointing letters received over the course of her academic career was partially inspired by a Parks and Recreation episode in which the skirt of Leslie Knope's wedding dress is a wearable collage of newspaper articles about the character, drawn from earlier episodes

More to the point, Kirby’s skirt is part of an ongoing campaign to acknowledge rejection as a necessary, if painful, part of academic growth.

The whole process of revisiting those old letters and making that skirt sort of reminded me that you have to apply to a lot of things to succeed. It seems counterintuitive to wear your rejections to your last test in your Ph.D, but we talked about our rejections every week and I wanted them to be a part of it.

And, as she later noted in a tweet:

Acceptances and rejections are often based on the traditional values of academia, which excludes POC by not valuing the approaches, research questions, and experiences that POC tend to bring to their work.

Kirby’s letters were culled from a variety of sources—scholarship applications, submissions to academic journals, and proposals for conference presentations.  Unfortunately and We regret to inform you are recurrent motifs. About 8 letters were left on the cutting room floor.

But she is prepared to lower her hemline, when she starts applying for jobs, following a stint at the Research Institute for Urban and Regional Development in Dortmund, Germany, the result of a successful Fulbright application.

Follow Kirby’s example and turn your temporary setbacks into a power skirt, using the tutorial above.

via Boing Boing 

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, December 9 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain, resurrects Dennison’s Christmas Book (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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