Music is the "language" that we all understand

Every culture in the world has its own songs: about love, lullabies, war songs or simply vibrant dance music. Recently, a study has found that it is not just popular music. Similar tunes can be repeated in the same music, all over the world.

Drawing on over a century of ethnographic research from 315 cultures, as well as a collection of song recordings from around the world, the scientists performed a multicultural analysis. about the similarities and differences in our music.

Music is the "language" that we all understand

The team found that the basic structure and melodic elements of songs around the world are the same, as we can easily tell the context of a song through the melody.

The researchers had to do impressive work to achieve this result. They spent years gathering archives, libraries and private collections to compile a comprehensive database of songs for comparison. They call this database the Natural History of Songs.

“We’re so used to being able to find any music we like on the Internet,” says psychologist Samuel Mehr of the Music Lab at Harvard University.

“But there were thousands of recordings stored in an archive that we couldn’t access online. We didn’t know what we were going to find: then we found an odd phone number, and thanks a Harvard librarian helped. Twenty minutes later, she brought out a trailer containing about 20 tapes of traditional Celtic music.”

In total, they collected recordings of 118 songs from 86 cultures spanning 30 geographies. But this is only a small part of “The Natural History of Song” . The team also studied a large ethnographic database of 315 cultures, looking for song mentions. Every culture has its own description of music.

So more than 5,000 song descriptions, including more than 2,000 translations of lyrics, from 60 cultures across 30 geographies have also been saved to the database.

Then comes the hard work, cataloging and analyzing the songs. The researchers recorded detailed information about the songs – how long each song was, what time of day it was sung, how many singers there were, who the audience was, pitch, tempo , keys, and other structural information.

They used a number of tools, including listener ratings, summaries, and expert transcriptions.

In the end, they had a comprehensive database for cross-referencing to understand how people write music around the world, with a particular focus on music therapy, love, dance music, and lullabies.

“Lullabies and dance music are ubiquitous, and they’re very stereotypical,” says evolutionary biologist Manvir Singh of Harvard University.

“For me, dance songs and lullabies tend to define what the music is all about. They offer something different with almost opposite features.”

Music is the "language" that we all understand

Previously, the team had found that even if they had never heard a particular song before, listeners were able to judge with relative accuracy if it was a lullaby. This new study seems to support those findings – regardless of spoken language, humans have a universal language through songs.

In fact, if you want to put your skills to the test, The Music Lab has a fun quiz you can play to categorize songs by their genre.

There are, of course, some variations in the songs – for example, there will be some more formal, some more religious, and some more upbeat; but this diversity is more pronounced between songs within each culture. The basic, multicultural similarity is stronger.

With this, the researchers believe, it is possible that our brains understand music on a universal level.

“We argue that the music of a society is not a fixed repository of cultural acts, but rather the product of the underlying psychology that makes certain types of sounds appropriate to social circumstances. and certain emotions,” they wrote in the article.

“Songs will vary based on the sound instruments used and the emotions they convey, but they are all created from a common human psychological response to sound.”

The team believes it is the ultimate step towards unlocking and building a universal musical grammar, as well as understanding how our minds create and respond to music.