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Music Integral to All Cultures, in Similar Ways: Study

HealthDay News
by -- Robert Preidt
Updated: Nov 21st 2019

new article illustration

THURSDAY, Nov. 21, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- Music truly is a universal language, researchers say.

An international team of scientists conducted a five-year study that looked at every society with ethnographic information online, totaling 315 -- and found music mentioned in all of them.

They also collected about 5,000 descriptions of song from 60 cultures spanning 30 distinct geographic regions, and 118 songs from 86 cultures in 30 geographic regions.

Across all societies, music is associated with behaviors such as infant care, healing, dance and love. And across many societies, music is associated with activities such as mourning, warfare, processions and ritual.

When they focused on lullabies, healing songs, dance songs and love songs, the researchers found that songs that share behavioral functions tend to have similar musical features.

"Lullabies and dance songs are ubiquitous and they are also highly stereotyped," said study author Manvir Singh, a graduate student in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.

"For me, dance songs and lullabies tend to define the space of what music can be. They do very different things with features that are almost the opposite of each other," Singh said in a university news release.

The findings could help unlock the governing rules of "musical grammar," according to co-author Samuel Mehr, a fellow of the Harvard Data Science Initiative and research associate in psychology.

That idea has been long been considered among music theorists, linguists and psychologists of music for decades, but had never been demonstrated across cultures.

"In music theory, tonality is often assumed to be an invention of Western music, but our data raise the controversial possibility that this could be a universal feature of music," Mehr said in the release.

"That raises pressing questions about structure that underlies music everywhere -- and whether and how our minds are designed to make music," he added.

The study was published Nov. 22 in the journal Science.

More information

The University of Central Florida has more on music and your brain.