Last updated February 7, 2018 at 4:27 pm
People can quickly make accurate inferences about what a singer is singing, even if they don’t understand the words.
If you enjoy world music, it may not just be the music that is ticking the boxes for you.
Songs with a similar function – be it soothing you to sleep, expressing undying love or motivating you to dance – tend also to sound similar, irrespective of which country and culture they come from.
“Despite the staggering diversity of music influenced by countless cultures and readily available to the modern listener, our shared human nature may underlie basic musical structures that transcend cultural differences,” says Dr Samuel Mehr, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Harvard’s Evolutionary Psychology Laboratory.
The study involved a lot of listening in unusual ways.
A song is a song wherever you’re from
A Harvard University team led by Mehr and co-first author Manvir Singh asked 750 internet users in 60 countries to listen to 14-second excerpts of songs selected pseudo-randomly from 86 predominantly small-scale societies, including hunter-gatherers, pastoralists and subsistence farmers.
Participants then were asked to evaluate the degree to which they believed each song was used for dancing, to soothe a baby, to heal illness, to express love for another person, to mourn the dead, or to tell a story. (In fact, none was used in mourning or to tell a story. Those options were included to discourage listeners from assuming only four song types were present.)
In total, participants listened to more than 26,000 excerpts and provided more than 150,000 ratings (six per song).
Despite unfamiliarity with the societies represented, the random sampling of each excerpt, their short duration, and the enormous diversity of the music, the ratings demonstrated accurate and cross-culturally reliable inferences about song functions on the basis of song forms alone.
How do people know what music is about?
In a follow-up experiment designed to explore possible ways in which people made those determinations about song function, the researchers asked 1,000 internet users in the US and India to rate the excerpts for three “contextual” features: number of singers, gender of singer(s), and number of instruments.
They also rated them for seven subjective musical features: melodic complexity, rhythmic complexity, tempo, steady beat, arousal, valence, and pleasantness.
An analysis of those data showed there was some relationship between those various features and song function, but not enough to explain how and why people were able to so reliably detect a song’s function.
The researchers are now conducting the same tests with listeners who live in isolated, small-scale societies and have never heard music other than that of their own cultures.
They are also further analysing the music of many cultures to try to figure out how their particular features relate to function and whether those features themselves might be universal.
The paper recently published by Current Biology.