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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Ther­a­peu­tic Ben­e­fits of Ambi­ent Music: Sci­ence Shows How It Eas­es Chron­ic Anx­i­ety, Phys­i­cal Pain, and ICU-Relat­ed Trau­ma

Why Catchy Songs Get Stuck in Our Brains: New Study Explains the Sci­ence of Ear­worms

A Playlist of Music Sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly-Proven to Increase Cows’ Milk Pro­duc­tion: REM, Lou Reed & More

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

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  • Pacuare says:

    As a musi­cian, not a sci­en­tist, my expe­ri­ences are per­son­al, but def­i­nite­ly demon­strate the cor­rect­ness of Mehr’s propo­si­tion. I was raised in a musi­cal house­hold, but one that pret­ty much stopped lis­ten­ing to any west­ern music writ­ten after about 1910. For my moth­er, Prokofiev was over the edge. How­ev­er, we lis­tened fre­quent­ly to South Asian music (of all types) and South Amer­i­can folk music. For me, west­ern “clas­si­cal” music and South Asian music feel like home; pop music of any type is unin­ter­est­ing and dis­cor­dant. Why? It’s what I per­son­al­ly know.

    Anoth­er short anec­dote: my hus­band and I trav­eled on our own through south­ern Chi­na in 2012, accom­pa­nied at times by a guide. She took us to the small town where she was raised and we dropped by the ele­men­tary school she’d attend­ed. The kinder­garten class was just fin­ish­ing for the day, and the kids decid­ed to sing us a song — in Chi­nese (Man­darin) of course. The tune was “Twin­kle, twin­kle lit­tle star”, so we joined in with our words. The chil­dren were aston­ished that these west­ern strangers knew their Chi­nese song. So was the song west­ern or Chi­nese? What deter­mines that? The words? The tune?

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