Despite Cultural Differences, Humans Understand Each Other's Music


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

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PUSHKAR, INDIA - MAR 7, 2012. Rajasthani folk dancers perform in Pushkar, India. Phuong D. Nguyen/Shutterstock

More or less every culture in the world has its own take on music, just compare the sound of a didgeridoo echoing through the Outback to a drum & bass festival. Music also seems to play a different role in different cultures. For some, it’s about ritual or tradition, while for others, it's to express emotion or simply to dance to.

But despite these apparent differences, scientists have found evidence to suggest that musical traits transcend different cultures, acting as a kind of “universal language”.


In a new study published in the journal Current Biology, psychologists put forward evidence that suggests that humans, regardless of their background, can easily identify a song's mood and tell if it is a lullaby, a dance song, or a spiritual song. Strangely though, people found it hard to guess if a tune was a love song.

"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," Samuel Mehr, a psychologist at Harvard University, said in a statement.

"We show that our shared psychology produces fundamental patterns in song that transcend our profound cultural differences," added co-first author of the study Manvir Singh. "This suggests that our emotional and behavioral responses to aesthetic stimuli are remarkably similar across widely diverging populations."

Psychologists at Harvard University asked 750 people from 60 different countries to listen to short excerpts of songs. These songs were from 86 different small societies from across the globe, from the Scottish Highlands to the southern tip of South America and everywhere in between. They then asked the participants to judge whether the song was used to dance to, soothe a baby, heal an illness, express loves, mourn the dead, or tell a story. They were also asked questions about the number of singers, the gender of the singers, the instruments used to play the melody, and the mood, tempo, and pleasantness of the sound.


Most of the participants, although totally unfamiliar with the music they heard, were able to reliably detect a song's function and qualities.

However, participants did have problems with detecting a love song. The research was not 100 percent clear on why this was, however it seems that this form of song is very culturally dependent. The researchers saw another curious relationship between lullabies and dance songs. "Not only were users best at identifying songs used for those functions, but their musical features seem to oppose each other in many ways," Mehr said, noting that the two are seemingly at far ends of the scale, one being slow and peaceful, and the other fast and vibrant.


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