Scientists Confirm Music Is Universal, and It Is Used in 'Strikingly Similar Ways' Across the Globe

Scientists have confirmed every society on the planet makes music and it is used in "strikingly similar ways," from lullabies to love songs.

To arrive at this conclusion, researchers spent five years painstakingly creating a database that features music created by people across the globe. They dubbed it the Natural History of Song.

With the help of experts who provided access to music archives the world over, the team were able to study field recordings of performances from each of the planet's 30 regions. These ranged from love songs and lullabies to music intended to heal from everywhere from Australia, to the Pacific Northwest, and Northern Africa. Cassettes, vinyl, reel-to-reels, CDs and digital recordings were dug up for the cause.

Samuel Mehr, a fellow of the Harvard Data Science Initiative and research associate in psychology, recalled in a statement how he asked a librarian at the institution to help, and 20 minutes later was presented with a cart of 20 cases of reel-to-reel recordings of traditional Celtic music.

To answer whether there is any truth to the commonly held belief that music is universal, the team also collected almost 5,000 descriptions of music by ethnographers who immersed themselves in 60 societies. The details provided included the time of the day of the music was performed, the number of singers, and their gender. They covered 315 societies in total.

"This gave us an enormous, rich dataset documenting musical behavior around the world," co-author, Manvir Singh of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, told Newsweek.

After putting in all this work, the researchers set about charting the similarities of music across cultures, by analyzing their features and looking for patterns in how people behave while listening to it.

Singh said the result is the most comprehensive test of whether music is universal. The research published in the journal Science "shows that music suffuses social life but in similar ways around the world," he said.

The team confirmed music is indeed universal, and found evidence that tonality is used around the world, suggesting it is a common musical grammar.

"People use music in a huge diversity of social contexts but in strikingly similar ways," Singh said.

Explaining the context of the study, Singh continued: "A major academic question is—what are the psychological and evolutionary origins of music? E.g., are we evolved to make it? But understanding why we engage in a behavior, we first have to understand what it looks like. And surprisingly, there has been very little work in answering the basic questions of what the behavioral and acoustical patterns are of music worldwide."

"This is partly because previously people lacked the resources, both the data and the tools to analyze it. So we thought we could leverage new tools, both the new availability of resources and the analytical tools of computational social science, to answer this basic question," he said.

"Music is clearly incredibly diverse—anyone with a Spotify subscription knows that—so knowing that, I'm driven to try to understand whether's there's an underlying logic, an echo of our common humanity that produces structural similarities everywhere," Singh said.

Co-author Luke Glowacki of the department of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University told Newsweek: "I found the strong similarities in music between widely disparate cultures extremely surprising. The fact that a lullaby, healing song or dance song from the British Isles or anywhere else in the world has many musical features in common with the same kind of song from hunter-gatherers in Australia or horticulturalists in Africa is remarkable."

Like all research, the study had its limitations. Singh said the team could only work with what they had, including being constrained to descriptions of music that ethnographers considered important enough to write about. Also, the study featured "only" 118 recordings from 86 societies, spanning dance songs, healing songs, love songs, and lullabies.

Detailing what the team envision doing next, Glowacki said: "We'd really like to see whether the ability to discern the function of music from short excerpts extends to traditional and isolated populations, such as hunter-gatherers. To this end, we've been conducting similar experiments in the field, ranging from societies of nomadic pastoralists in Ethiopia to horticulturalists in Indonesia. We'll be carrying it out in a few more isolated traditional societies in the upcoming year."

guitar, music, song, fingers, stock, getty
A stock image shows a woman playing the guitar. Every known society in the world makes music, according to research.
Scientists Confirm Music Is Universal, and It Is Used in 'Strikingly Similar Ways' Across the Globe | Tech & Science