Photo credit: shankar s. licensed under CC BY 2.0

By Antonella Radicchi, PhD, Steering Committee Member, The Quiet Coalition

Despite its inherently subjective nature, music appears to be universal across different cultures around the globe, according to the findings of a hot-off-the-press Harvard study published January in Current Biology.

This interdisciplinary study, run by an international team of scientists from Harvard University and the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse, produced significant findings that suggest people can infer song function on the basis of song form alone, regardless of the song’s cultural origin.

The scientists were committed to filling the gap of knowledge regarding the lack of empirical evidence for whether or not different types of music share common features across cultures. To address this issue they designed a study based on two experiments.

In the first experiment, 750 online participants in 60 countries were asked to listen to 14-second long excerpts of songs collected from nearly 90 small societies around the globe. The songs were drawn from the collection of the Natural History of Song–a Harvard-based project investigating the world’s vocal music–and focused on three types: dance, healing, and lullaby. Participants were then asked to rate the association between the vocal songs and their potential functions, on a scale composed of six prevalent functions, such as dancing, soothing a baby, healing illness, expressing love, mourning a death, and telling a story.

Data collected through first experiment showed that people were able to infer the song function only on the basis of the song form, despite the random sampling of the songs, the short duration of the excerpts, and the unfamiliarity of the online participants with the cultures were the songs originated. This finding contradicted academic expert projections–when ethnomusicologists were asked by the scientists whether people could deduct the song function from the song from or not, they were skeptical and expressed doubt. But they were wrong.

The scientists continued with a second experiment that evaluated potential commonalities in music making across cultures by asking the online participants to rate contextual and musical features, such as the number and gender of the singers, the melodic complexity of the songs, etc. Again, the results were very consistent, and by comparing the results form both the experiments scientists were able to argue that common musical features exist across cultural boundaries.

Despite the promising results, a significant weakness affects the study, as highlighted by the lead scientist: the participants were people who have had access to Internet and probably were familiar with vocal songs from different cultures. In this regard, it remains unclear whether the results reveal the structure of the human mind or they tell us how and what the contemporary listeners hear in world music.

This bias will be addressed in a follow-up study in which the survey will be translated in 24 languages so the scientists can extend the number of countries involved. Furthermore–and this sounds very exciting!–the scientists aim to bring the study into the field and play in real time songs excerpts for members of small societies based in Indonesia, Ethiopia, and elsewhere.

Stay tuned for further amazing results!

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