Musical universals: people can identify lullabies and dance songs from other cultures

GettyImages-149147996.jpgBy Emma Young

No matter where they live, people interpret certain kinds of vocalisations, even from animals, as conveying a particular emotion – as “angry”, for instance, or “soothing”. It’s tempting to think that there might be similar cross-cultural universals in the ways that we use music – that a song used to calm an infant in Melanesia, say, should bear striking similarities to a song created for the same purpose by a culture in the Arctic Circle.

Well, it’s tempting if you’re a cognitive scientist – though not if you’re an ethnomusicologist (who studies music from different cultures), according to a survey of the opinions of academics reported in a new paper, published in Current Biology. “Historically, the idea that there might be universals in music from many cultures has been met with considerable scepticism, especially among music scholars,” note the authors of the study, led by Samuel Mehr at Harvard University, which then goes on to explore whether they do exist.

The team recruited 750 online participants from 60 countries. They listened to a random sample of 36 excerpts of songs taken from the Natural History of Song discography, which includes vocal music from 86 predominantly small-scale societies – such as love songs from the Fulani society of pastoralists from Western Africa, lullabies from Igluik Inuit hunger-gatherers from the Arctic Circle, and dance songs by a society of horticulturalists from Melanesia. “The broad range of cultures and languages…combined with the many countries of origin of the participants makes it likely that participants were both unfamiliar with the music they heard and unable to understand the lyrics,” the researchers note.

These particular songs were chosen because each represented one of four specific social functions: “for dancing”, “to soothe a baby”, “to heal illness” and “to express love for another person”. The participants’ task was to indicate, on six-point scales, the degree to which they believed each song was used for each of those four reasons.

The listeners were fairly accurate at judging which songs were intended “for dancing” or “to soothe a baby”. They were less competent at recognising healing songs: while they were generally of the opinion that these songs were not “for dancing”, they found it hard to judge whether they were for healing or for soothing a baby. The participants were least accurate at spotting “love songs”.

In a second experiment, the researchers explored which features of the various songs the listeners might have been using to make their judgements. Using 500 participants from India and 500 from the US, they found that dance songs were rated as having higher melodic complexity, a faster tempo and a steadier beat, for example, relative to the three other song types. Lullabies, meanwhile, were rated as having lower melodic complexity, lower rhythmic complexity, a slower tempo and a less steady beat than the other three types. It seems likely then that these are culturally universal characteristics shared by music that serves these functions.

However, we can’t be entirely sure this is the case. As the researchers note, all the participants in these experiments had access to the internet, so while in theory there was no reason to think that a listener from India would have been familiar with lullabies from the Arctic, they might have been. More likely, they may already have heard various songs with different uses from different cultures, and this experience, rather than cultural universals in the use of music, might have influenced the participants’ conclusions. “A stronger test of universality would require testing the inferences of people living in isolated societies with minimal access to the music of other cultures,” the researchers note.

Still, overall, “these findings are consistent with the existence of universal form-function links in human song,” the researchers argue.

Form and Function in Human Song

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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