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Music's meaning crosses cultural boundaries, study finds

A Saami beating a drum.
REUTERS/William Webster
A Saami beating a drum.

People from around the world can recognize lullabies, love songs, dancing songs and healing songs from other cultures with remarkable accuracy — and after listening to only a brief 14-second snippet of each song, according to a fascinating study published last week in Current Biology

Music is, of course, a universal form of human expression. This new study’s findings suggest, however, that music also may serve — in the famous words of the 19th-century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — as a kind of “universal language.”

“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,” said lead author Samuel Mehr in a released statement. A postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University when he worked on the study, Mehr is currently a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse, France. 

Study details

For the study, Mehr and his Harvard colleagues recruited 750 people from 60 countries to listen online to short, 14-second excerpts of 86 songs. Most of the songs came from small-scale societies, including hunter-gatherers, pastoralists (people who make their living raising sheep, cattle, camels, yaks or other livestock) and subsistence farmers.

The societies represented by the songs include the Kogi people of South America (Colombia), the Saami people of northern Europe (Scandinavia), the Zulu of Southern Africa and the Navajo of North America. 

After listening to each song excerpt, the study’s participants were asked to indicate on a six-point scale the degree to which they believed the purpose of the song was 1) to soothe a baby, 2) to express love for another person, 3) to heal illness, 4) to dance to, 5) to tell a story or 6) to mourn the dead. (None of the songs told a story or mourned the dead, however. Those categories were used as “controls,” so that the participants wouldn’t assume all the songs fell into the other four categories.)  

The study produced more than 150,000 ratings for 26,000 songs (six ratings per song per participant). After crunching all that data, the researchers found that “despite participants’ unfamiliarity with the societies represented, the random sampling of each excerpt, their very short duration (14 s), and the enormous diversity of this music, the ratings demonstrated accurate and cross-culturally reliable inferences about song functions.”

The participants were particularly good at identifying dance songs and lullabies. They were a bit less adept at recognizing love songs and healing songs.

Not universally predicted 

The overall finding of the study was unexpected — at least, by some. Before the study began, the Harvard researchers surveyed more than 900 academics in the fields of cognitive sciences, ethnomusicology, music theory and other areas of music scholarship to see if they thought the study’s participants would accurately identify the social purpose of the songs based on their form alone. 

Three-quarters of the cognitive scientists thought they would, but only about a quarter of the ethnomusicologists made the same prediction. The music theorists and academics in other music disciplines were more equivocal. About half predicted that the participants would make accurate inferences about the function of the songs.

A follow-up experiment

To determine possible explanations for how people could cross-culturally figure out a song’s function, the researchers conducted a second experiment. They asked 1,000 online volunteers in the United States and India to rate the song excerpts for both “contextual” features (such as the the number and gender of the singers) and “subjective” features (such as melodic complexity, arousal level and tempo).

“From all these, we get a very simple and rudimentary analysis of each song,” Mehr told the Harvard Gazette. “It turns out when you ask people these very simple questions about songs, they agree with each other very highly. Even on really subjective musical features, like melodic complexity, they tend to make consistent ratings with one another.”

Dance songs, for example, “tend to have more singers, more instruments, more complex melodies, and more complex rhythms than other forms of music,” the researchers write in their paper, while lullabies “tend to be rhythmically and melodically simpler, slower, sung by one female person, and with low arousal relative to other forms of music.”

Expanding the research

As Mehr and his colleagues point out, the study comes with its share of caveats. The primary one is that despite their geographic differences, the 750 participants all spoke English and had access to a wide variety of music via the internet. That shared musical experience might explain the results.

For that reason, the researchers are now translating the study’s questions into dozens of languages. The study will also be conducted with people living in small-scale societies around the world. 

“That is the most exciting part,” said Mehr. “Because these are people who have had little exposure to the internet or radio or Western culture. The only music they know is their own music. We’ll find out whether they share the same conceptions of form and function in music with our English-speaking internet users.”

FMI: You can read the study in full on the Current Biology website. You can also test your own abilities to recognize the purpose of four songs at the Harvard Gazette (scroll down to the end of the article).

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