Human Songs From Across The Globe Share Universal Characteristics


Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

clockNov 21 2019, 20:00 UTC

Quechua person performing a song in Cuzco. Martin Gardeazabal/Shutterstock

English-American poet W. H. Auden once wrote that the most beautiful melodies are simple and inevitable. And he might have been right in more ways than one. New research suggests that human songs from cultures from around the world share universal characteristics.

The idea of universal characteristics in human songs across cultures is not new. Music is ancient and widespread, and it's possible that just like language, its social function comes from biological abilities. But researchers point to a general lack of studies when it comes to proving the existence of widespread similarities.


An international group of researchers set out to better understand the differences and similarities in human songs by combining data science, musical recordings, and ethnographic records for songs from 315 cultures. In the paper, published in Science, the team describes their project as the Natural History of Song.

The study included two sub-projects: one focusing on the descriptions of the songs and their place in society, and the other on song recordings that were divided into melodies for dance, healing, love, and lullaby songs.

The analysis looked statistically at shared properties and found that certain tunes are specific for celebrations, recognizable by everyone across the world. The team used citizen scientists to listen to the recordings and classify the songs into specific categories. Over 30,000 participants used the team's citizen science portal called The Music Lab. As it turns out, we are pretty good at recognizing the function of a song even if it belongs to a different culture. A lullaby sounds like a lullaby. The researchers say there is actually more variation in music within a culture than between different cultures.


"We seem to reliably see a link between the types of musical features that appear in these different song types and the types of behaviors that are used with the songs. So there's something about the musical features of a lullaby worldwide that make a lullaby sound like a lullaby. Same thing for dance songs, and even for healing songs, which we don't really use very much in modern societies," lead author Dr Samuel Mehr, from Harvard University, told IFLScience. 

"This kind of work is pretty new because it used to be much more difficult to do it. It used to be much harder to work with international groups of collaborators and it used to be much harder to track down obscure rare recordings. Five to ten years ago, this kind of work wouldn't have been possible," 

The researchers have only just started unlocking the mystery of humans' relationship with music and have plans to understand the biological and psychological aspects of these universal characteristics.


If you are curious about the Natural History of Song project or about how the human mind creates and perceives music, check out The Music Lab.