A recent study reinforces the idea that music is universal

Whether it’s familiar or foreign, you’ll get the right feeling.
A salsa band on the street.
Across different countries, genres, and instruments, songs trumpet the same general messages. Rav_/Pixabay

When you think of the songs of a faraway land or culture, what comes to mind? Is it something familiar, or something so unique from what you’re used to that you can barely guess what the music is about?

Turns out, your guess might be more educated than you think. Across cultures, we write different songs for different purposes, say, to start a religious procession, get your groove on, or hush a crying baby to sleep. But in the end, there’s more diversity within cultures than outside of them.

A new study published in Science breaks down how the purpose of music is universal across the world, despite the incredible variety within each cultural bubble.

“Cultures all over the world have different kinds of music in each society, but what this means is when you zoom out, society’s musical behaviors are pretty similar,” says lead author Sam Mehr, a psychologist at Harvard.

Mehr started working on the project after he kept reading a trite line at the top of research papers that said, “music is universal.” But every time he came across the statement, there wasn’t a citation to back it up.

To see if there was any substance to this claim, he and his fellow researchers created two databases: one with descriptions from anthropologists of what happened when music from 60 was playing, and another of 118 audio recordings from 86 different societies.

He found that there were three characteristics of behavior that consistently characterized music: formality, arousal (or how calming or exciting a song was), and religiosity. Most societies had music that fell into more than one category.

Given those categories, both machines and foreign listeners were able to pick out a song’s purpose in further tests. The researchers investigated responses from community scientists across the globe, looking at how well they could identify the type of tune based on samples from an online quiz.

People did a decent job guessing the themes, especially for dance songs and lullabies, says author Manvir Singh, a Harvard Ph.D. student in the department of human evolutionary biology. “Music appears in this huge diversity of behavioral, social, emotional context in human societies,” Singh says, “but it does so similarly across societies.”

Daniel Levitin, a cognitive scientist who’s done similar research on music and evolution, believes this kind of systematic approach to understanding music is long overdue. He also says that the study points to an evolutionary history between music and humans.

“The musical brain may have led to things that we take for granted in human nature, like compassion and empathy, because music uniquely can help us achieve those states,” Levitin explains. “Not to mention awe, appreciation, and gratitude.”

For Mehr and his team, the hunt for data is just the beginning. The lab is running more detailed quizzes to dig into how people respond to what they hear. They also hope to do studies on different populations like infants to see how they react to tunes like lullabies from faraway societies.

Singh says he also hopes to analyze lyrics and the way they shape people’s feelings and actions, even if it’s in a language they don’t understand. “Exploring the lyrics allows us to better understand how music can induce these emotional or behavioral responses,” says Singh, “but also, in a broader way, the world view of the people who are singing.”