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Dance Songs Dissolve Differences That Divide Us

A new Harvard study pinpoints what types of music create a universal language.

This post is in response to
Why Is Dancing So Good for Your Brain?
Syda Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Syda Productions/Shutterstock

People from just about every culture use lullabies to soothe babies, write love songs to express romantic feelings, and dance together in synchrony. Human song is used to facilitate specific psychological and social functions in ways that can make music a universal language, according to a new study from Harvard University. The paper, “Form and Function in Human Song," was published on January 25, 2018, in the journal Current Biology.

For this study, the researchers had participants in 60 countries listen to snippets of unfamiliar songs and categorize them based on form-function associations. Participants answered questions to identify how they thought each song was used based on six different social contexts — (1) for dancing, (2) to soothe a baby, (3) to heal illness, (4) to express love for another person, (5) to mourn the dead, and (6) to tell a story.

After hearing a quick, 14-second sampling of numerous songs, the two categories that really stood out as being universally identifiable by form and function were music to soothe a baby (lullabies) and dance songs. Although these findings may seem somewhat obvious on the surface, the researchers emphasize that their study reaffirms the existence of universal links between form and function in vocal music.

In a statement, co-first author Samuel Mehr said, "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." Mehr is a cognitive scientist and Director of The Music Lab at Harvard’s Department of Psychology.

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

The New York Times reported on this study in an article, “Can You Tell a Lullaby from a Love Song? Listen and Find Out,” by Alex Marshall. The online version of this article offers a fun, interactive game that asks the question "Can you tell what a song’s used for even when you have no experience of the culture that made it?” and invites readers to take a quiz based on the new study.

In his article, Marshall scrutinizes some aspects of the Mehr et al. study. He writes, “The work has been welcomed by cognitive scientists. But one group of academics has not given it such a warm response — ethnomusicologists, the very people who collected many of the recordings and descriptions the Harvard project is using.”

Marshall explains that some ethnomusicologists believe that removing a specific song from it’s multifaceted cultural, political, and social contexts negates accurate form-function interpretations. Mehr responded to these criticisms in the Times piece: “People all over the world interpret the music of their own culture in their own way. That’s a fascinating topic for research, but we’re asking a different question — whether people interpret the music of other cultures in similar ways.”

Dance Songs May Have Evolved to Fortify Cooperative Relationships Between Different Groups

The ongoing controversy among ethnomusicologists about the possible universality of music isn’t likely to die down soon. That said, there is other scholarly research that focuses specifically on “Music and Dance As a Coalition Signaling System.” This study, by Edward Hagen and Gregory Bryant, explores the evolutionary role that dance songs may have played in bringing people from different cultural backgrounds together. As Hagen and Bryant explain in their abstract:

"The sexual selection hypothesis cannot easily account for the widespread performance of music and dance in groups (especially synchronized performances), and the social bonding hypothesis has severe theoretical difficulties. Humans are unique among the primates in their ability to form cooperative alliances between groups in the absence of consanguineal ties. We propose that this unique form of social organization is predicated on music and dance. Music and dance may have evolved as a coalition signaling system that could, among other things, credibly communicate coalition quality, thus permitting meaningful cooperative relationships between groups."

Anecdotally, I can corroborate that being on a dance floor with strangers from different parts of the globe facilitates unspoken cooperative alliances. For example, as an adolescent, I was fortunate enough to spend a summer in Spain as an exchange student. Almost every night, my Spanish friends and I would go to the discotheque.

Our favorite dance club was Joy Eslava, which was Madrid's "Studio 54." It was 1982, and Joy Eslava was an international disco-dancing hub. I can still remember my favorite dance anthems of "Verano ochenta y dos" — Mecano, "Just an Illusion" by Imagination, "Best Part of Breakin' Up, Is When We're Makin' Up" by Roni Griffith, and the extended dance mix of "Don't You Want Me" by Human League top the list. When I returned home, I kept going out dancing on a regular basis. It's a ritual that continues to this day.

On a rainy Sunday night in 1983, I was lucky enough to see Madonna perform in a small gay nightclub in Boston, before she became famous. Witnessing her boldness changed my life. She had so much chutzpah and joie de vivre (and dropped the F-bomb about a dozen times). Most important, as a member of the LGBTQ community, Madonna was the first performer I'd ever seen in concert who didn’t seem to care about people’s sexual orientation. She just wanted to make everyone in the audience happy and inspire us to dance. Through the lens of dance music’s universality, the song "Holiday" is spot on: “Come together, in every nation!

In May 1990, Madonna's "Vogue" became one of the most massive international dance hits of all time, selling millions of copies and topping music charts around the globe. And the lyrics sum up the universal power of music and dancing:

Look around, everywhere you turn is heartache. It's everywhere that you go. You try everything you can to escape. The pain of life that you know. When all else fails and you long to be, something better than you are today — I know a place where you can get away. It's called a dance floor. And, that's what it's for.

It makes no difference if you're black or white. If you're a boy or a girl. If the music's pumping, it will give you life. You're a superstar. Yes, that's what you are. You know it.

Madonna et al. performing "Vogue" flawlessly at the 1990 MTV Music Awards:

A 2016 study, "Silent Disco: Dancing in Synchrony Leads to Elevated Pain Thresholds and Social Closeness,” found that moving in synchrony leads to cooperative behavior and feelings of social closeness between strangers.

All of this research on the universal power of dance music begs the question: In a time of xenophobia and anti-immigration rhetoric, maybe increasing the prevalence of music and dancing in our daily lives is an underutilized way to bring people from different backgrounds together and help us empathize with one another?

I did a random Google search for the most popular dance songs of all time. Of course, I am biased in curating the following Top 10 list based on when (1966) and where (New York City) I was born. Even though the songs are dated, I think the clips form a timeless exhibit of how “Dance Songs Dissolve Differences That Divide Us,” and illuminate why each of us should make more of an effort to Boogie, Oogie, Oogie on a regular basis:

1. "Y.M.C.A." by The Village People

2. "Night Fever" by Bee Gees

3. "Dancing Queen" by ABBA

4. "Groove Is in the Heart" by Deee-Lite

5. "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge

6. "The Hustle" by Van McCoy

7. "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor

8. "Thank You (Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agin)" by Sly & The Family Stone

9. "Into The Groove" by Madonna

10. "Brick House" by Commodores

Bonus Track: "Holiday" (Live from Blonde Ambition Tour)


Samuel A. Mehr, Manvir Singh, Hunter York, Luke Glowacki, Max M. Krasnow. “Form and Function in Human Song.” Current Biology (Published: January 25, 2018) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.12.042

Edward H. Hagen and Gregory A. Bryant. "Music and Dance As a Coalition Signaling System." Human Nature (2003) DOI: 10.1007/s12110-003-1015-z

Bronwyn Tarr, Jacques Launay, and Robin IM Dunbar. "Silent Disco: Dancing in Synchrony Leads to Elevated Pain Thresholds and Social Closeness." Evolution and Human Behavior (2016) DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2016.02.004