Can a song be universal? Apparently so, according to science

Music is universal. We have all thought that at some point, with one song causing similar reactions in different people, making us want to dance, sign or even generating a sense of love. Now, science has taken us one step closer to what makes some sound progressions so universal.

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A group of researchers looked at research in ethnomusicology from 315 cultures and a collection of song recordings from different countries. They did a cross-cultural analysis to understand the similarities and differences and found that the structures and melodic elements of songs are the same worldwide.

The study, published in Science, took quite a bit of work. The team had to go through archives, libraries, and private collections, compiling a massive database of songs to carry out their comparison. They called the database “Natural History of Song”, formed by 118 songs from 86 different cultures of 30 different regions.

“We are so used to being able to find any piece of music that we like on the internet,” said psychologist Samuel Mehr of The Music Lab at Harvard University. “But there are thousands and thousands of recordings buried in archives that are not accessible online. We didn’t know what we would find.”

The team worked with an ethnographic database of 315 cultures and looked for mentions of a song. All cultures had their specific music style described. More than 5,000 descriptions of songs from 60 cultures in 30 regions were included in the database — a painstaking task.

The researchers took detailed notes about the songs such as their length, the moment of the day when it was sung, the number of singers, the pitch range, the tempo, and many other structural details. They used a set of tools to help their tasks such as machine summaries, listener ratings, and expert transcriptions.

Based on their findings, the team argues that music can be tied to specific cognitive and affective faculties. These include language, as all societies use words in songs, motor control, as everybody dances across the world, auditory analysis, as every music system as tone signatures, and aesthetics, as melodies and rhythms, are balanced.

“Lullabies and dance songs are ubiquitous and they are also highly stereotyped,” said evolutionary biologist Manvir Singh of Harvard University. “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.”

This isn’t the first time the researchers looked at this topic. In the past, they discovered that listeners were able to identify when a song was a lullaby, even not having heard the song before. Now, the new research appears to support those findings.

There was some variation between the songs, the team found. Some songs are of course more formal, while others are more religious and other more rousing. The variation increased between songs in a specific culture. This means that our brains could be able to understand music on a universal level, the team argued.

“The music of a society is not a fixed inventory of cultural behaviors, but rather the product of underlying psychological faculties that make certain kinds of sound feel appropriate to certain social and emotional circumstances,” the researchers concluded in the paper.

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