A team of multidisciplinary researchers has attempted to determine the truth of the highly speculated theory that music is a universal factor among cultures.
The team analyzed ethnographic observations carried out in 315 societies throughout the world and explored vast troves of research data and recorded music to break new ground in resolving an old conundrum.
Throughout history, fundamental questions about music have remained unanswered. Experts have assumed — but not proven — that music is universal, existing in all human societies. However, many scholars and musicologists disagree about whether the location of a piece of music’s creation determines its sound.
The current study may now provide quantified evidence that music is universal and that its form can transcend cultural differences and geographic contexts.
Three researchers, all currently or formerly associated with Harvard University, in Cambridge, MA, developed this large-scale study: Samuel Mehr, a research associate, Prof. Luke Glowacki, and Manvir Singh, a graduate student.
However, researchers from various institutions contributed, including expert musicians, ethnomusicologists, and music theorists. The team also analyzed data from more than 29,000 volunteers.
They set about answering music’s most challenging questions, such as “Does music appear universally?” and, “What kinds of behavior are associated with song, and how do they vary among societies?” They recently published their findings in the journal Science.
Previous studies into the universality of music among societies were not considered representative because of small sample sizes or limited geographic contexts.
Also, earlier studies often relied solely on the analysis of personal accounts and written histories, making the findings vulnerable to human bias. Mehr and the team were set on creating a more robust method; they write:
“Hypotheses of the evolutionary function of music are […] untestable without comprehensive and representative data on its forms and behavioral contexts across societies.”
To provide conclusive evidence of music’s universality, the team needed to crunch a huge amount of data. Combining computational science and ethnomusicology (the study of music from a cultural perspective), the team analyzed data from private collections and ethnographic databases, such as the Human Relations Area Files’ online database.
They amassed nearly 5,000 ethnographic descriptions of songs from 60 societies and a staggering number of recordings. The team collectively titled these collections the Natural History of Song (NHS). They then assembled the NHS discography, which includes 118 songs from 30 geographic regions.
Ultimately, the researchers found mentions of song in all 315 societies included in their analysis. From this, they concluded that music is, indeed, universal.
Mehr and the team then used a mix of computational and human analysis to study variation in the interpretation of music around the world.
They applied technological tools that automatically define the qualities of a song’s tone and pitch and recruited expert listeners to describe the theoretical features of each piece of music. They also used nonexpert listeners to establish perceptive qualities of the music, such as how a song made them feel.
The study grew larger still with the inclusion of a huge data set from 29,357 volunteers who visited the team’s citizen science website and categorized songs by type.
This study expands our understanding of music’s universality in a number of ways. The authors make the following conclusions:
- Music isuniversal, appearing within 315 societies.
- Behavior associated with music varies more within societies than between them.
- People in all societies dance.
- Songs in all societies have words.
- Tonality is not just a Western characteristic — it is something that all societies use in song.
- Four kinds of song can be found throughout the world — dance songs, healing songs, love songs, and lullabies.
The defining factor that underpins these findings will come as a surprise to many musicologists: When it comes to music, we have more in common than not.
Mehr considers the project to represent a rich, complex analysis of human behavior and cognitive perception. He holds that the results of the analysis have only highlighted our similarities:
“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.”
– Samuel Mehr
In a world fraught with division, it’s comforting to hear that some universal practices unite us.