From Andean pan-pipe ballads to pirate sea shanties, all forms of music share certain common elements, despite being derived from hugely contrasting cultural contexts. This has given rise to numerous theories about the possibility of music being hardwired into humans’ brains, and a new study in the journal Nature Human Behaviour adds yet more weight to this hypothesis.
Intriguingly, the study authors also suggest that it may actually be the shortcomings and imperfections of our cognition that cause us to organize sounds into memorable rhythms and melodies.
The researchers behind the paper recently conducted a separate study in which they analyzed 304 musical recordings from around the world, and identified 18 features that appear to be shared among all musical traditions. Of these, six were related to rhythm: a metronomic beat, clusters of two to three beats, a preference for two-beat components, regular soft and strong beats, a small number of beat patterns per song, and the creation of riffs or tunes using these patterns.
Using this as a starting point, the team recruited 48 non-musicians from the University of Edinburgh to play a game of percussive Chinese whispers in groups of eight. The first person in each group had to copy a series of 12 random beats, generated by a computer, that did not obey any of the six universal principals of musical rhythm. Each successive participant then had to try to emulate what the previous person had played.
By the time the final player had performed their rendition, the originally tuneless succession of beats had transformed into structured, easy to remember patterns that adhered to all six rhythmic universals.
In their write-up, the study authors propose that this occurred because remembering 12 completely random beats is beyond the capability of the human brain, which tends instead to generate memorable patterns consisting of regularly repeating components.
Rhythms therefore emerged as successive players “introduced errors in their efforts to replicate the sequences they heard,” removing the more anomalous beats and replacing them with ones that were easier to reproduce.
As such, the researchers speculate that it is the limited nature of our working memory – which can typically hold between five and seven pieces of information at a time – that causes us to create music with a small number of recurring beats, rather than many idiosyncratic elements.
In other words, the musical structures and patterns that appear in all cultures may be a product of our brains simply not being good enough to remember long, disorganized sequences of notes.