Music is humankind’s universal language: Study

PTI, Nov 22, 2019, 5:34 PM IST

Boston: Songs spanning different languages and ethnic groups across the world exhibit common behavioural patterns, according to a first-of-its-kind study which suggests that human culture everywhere is built from common psychological building blocks.

The study, published in the journal Science, reports the first comprehensive scientific analysis of the similarities and differences in the types of music produced by various ethnicity around the world.

It looked at more than a century of research on the historical and cultural context of music, or ethnomusicology, of more than 300 societies across the globe.

The researchers from Harvard University in the US collected hundreds of music recordings in libraries and private collections of scientists halfway across the world, culminating in around 5,000 song descriptions from 60 cultures spanning 30 distinct geographic regions globally.

The researchers also added reel-to-reels, vinyl, cassette tapes, CDs, and digital recordings, and the private music collections of anthropologists and ethnomusicologists — who study the cultural context of music — into a database they called The Natural History of Song.

They coded the cultural roots and music types making up the database into dozens of variables.

To this, the researchers also added details about singers and audience members, the time of day, duration of singing, the presence of instruments, and more details for thousands of passages about songs in the ethnographic corpus.

They analysed the discography in four different ways — machine summaries, listener ratings, expert annotations, and expert transcriptions.

The results of the study revealed that across societies, music is associated with behaviours such as infant care, healing, dance, love, mourning, and warfare.

According to the researchers, these behaviours are not too different between societies.

While examining lullabies, healing songs, dance songs, and love songs, they found that songs sharing similar behavioural functions had common musical features.

“Lullabies and dance songs are ubiquitous and they are also highly stereotyped,” study co-author Manvir Singh said.

“For me, dance songs and lullabies tend to define the space of what music can be. They do very different things with features that are almost the opposite of each other,” Singh said.

According to Singh, the distinct similarity in the music produced by different societies is evidence that human culture everywhere is built from common psychological building blocks.

The researchers said the study may also help unlock the governing rules of “musical grammar.”

“In music theory, tonality is often assumed to be an invention of Western music, but our data raises the controversial possibility that this could be a universal feature of music,” said study co-author Samuel Mehr.

“That raises pressing questions about structure that underlies music everywhere — and whether and how our minds are designed to make music,” Mehr said.

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