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What Do Musical Experiences Have in Common Across Cultures?

Key musical characteristics may vary more within cultures than between them.

Theresa Pichorner/Shutterstock
Source: Theresa Pichorner/Shutterstock

By Sofia Quaglia

Music is a vital part of cultures around the world, and the idea that it has some universal features is not new. But a paper recently published in the journal Science analyzes these characteristics systematically—finding evidence of both variation and common threads running through the world’s songs and song-related behaviors.

“Music perception and music production are not quirks of the human mind,” says Harvard University researcher Samuel Mehr, the lead author of the study. “There is some underlying structure in how musical behaviors vary, or don’t, worldwide.”

To explore which elements seem to be universal parts of the human musical experience, researchers analyzed more than 4,700 ethnographic descriptions of song performances in traditional societies. These texts detailed, for example, the context in which the song was sung and what the singers and listeners were doing. The researchers also compiled field recordings of songs from traditional cultures across the world, which were analyzed in a number of ways, including machine summaries of the audio tracks, input from lay listeners and expert musicians, and expert transcriptions of musical features.

The exhaustive analysis clarified, first, that music was present in all of the more than 300 societies researchers examined, from the Highland Scots and native Ojibwe to the Shrilankan Sinhalese and Paraguayan Guaraní. This indicates that music is universal in its most simple sense—that it appears in cultures everywhere, an oft-made statement that previously had little systematic evidence to back it up.

Looking at descriptions of “song events” across cultures—accounts of how songs were performed, how a society used them, or both—the researchers also found that musical behavior varied in part based on three dimensions. These included formality (roughly, how ceremonial song performances were); arousal (the liveliness and amount of activity associated with a performance); and the extent to which the performance of a song was connected to religion.

Interestingly, there tended to be more variation on these dimensions within a particular culture than there was between cultures. Any given culture may have a wide variety of songs and presentations of them, from a peppy jig for parties to a lethargic funeral dirge. The researchers found that “songs were six times more varied within cultures than between,” explains Mehr. “Take a hypothetical song that is average in formality, excitement, and religiosity. That song could plausibly appear in any of the societies we’ve looked at.”

When researchers analyzed characteristics of song recordings from the traditional cultures, focusing on four types—dance songs, healing songs, love songs, and lullabies—they found further evidence of global similarity in how humans relate to music. A large, online pool of listeners was able to identify which of the four song types each recording fit at better-than-chance rates—correctly categorizing dance songs more than half the time, for example.

Analyses also showed evidence that particular song types tended to share distinct acoustic qualities across societies. “These results suggest that universal features of human psychology bias people to produce and enjoy songs with certain kinds of rhythmic or melodic patterning that naturally go with certain moods, desires, and themes,” the researchers write. “These patterns do not consist of concrete acoustic features, such as a specific melody or rhythm, but rather of relational properties such as accent, meter, and interval structure.”

“This is a tour de force addressing an old question by throwing a whole new armamentarium at the problem,” says Tecumseh Fitch, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Vienna who was not involved with the research.

But there’s still more to uncover. Since the database used in this study only included vocal music, there is a massive trove of instrumental music yet to be examined in this way. “This leaves out the complex fusion between harmony and rhythm,” Fitch says. Additionally, there are thousands of other cultures that aren’t currently represented in the database.

Although there are plenty of interesting questions left to answer, the database helps to show the global presence of music in human minds.

“Humans everywhere share a suite of cognitive mechanisms that predispose them to think that certain sounds go with certain emotional and behavioral contexts,” says Manvir Singh, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University and co-author of the study. “It’s something about how humans are put together, regardless of where they are.”

Sofia Quaglia is a former Psychology Today Editorial Intern.