Human song is universal

Music pervades social life in similar ways around the world
Published: 21 November 2019

Music, including songs with words, appears to be a universal phenomenon according to a paper published this week in Science. An international team of researchers involving musicians, data scientists, psychologists, political scientists and linguists, including one from McGill University, reached this conclusion after five years of collaboration, bringing together a broad range of skills and tools to the question of whether music is universal.

Using broad datasets to arrive at deep conclusions about music

To answer questions about which aspects of music were similar and different across disparate societies, the researchers needed to use datasets of unprecedented breadth and depth. They looked at every society for which there was ethnographic information in a large online database, 315 in all, and found mention of music in all of them. They collected around 5,000 descriptions of song from a subset of 60 cultures spanning 30 distinct geographic regions.

“This database of ethnographic texts is a real treasure,” said McGill linguist Timothy O’Donnell, who brought his skills as a data scientist to the project. He was excited about applying the Artifical Intelligence techniques he typically uses to work with language to look at music. “Because ethnographers have digitized such a large part of the literature in their field and then annotated it at the level of key words in paragraphs, we could mine that for critical information about the function of song.”

A global musical treasure hunt

The team also hunted down dozens of recordings whether in the form of reel-to-reels, vinyl, cassette tapes, CDs, or digital recordings from libraries and private collections of ethnolusicologists half a world away, collecting 118 songs from a total of 86 cultures, again covering 30 geographic regions.

Similar musical features for songs with similar functions across cultures

The researchers found that, across societies, music is associated with behaviors such as infant care, healing, dance, and love (among many others, like mourning, warfare, processions and ritual), and that the function of song tends to be similar from society to society. Examining lullabies, healing songs, dance songs, and love songs in particular, they discovered moreover that songs that have similar functions tend to have similar musical features.

The discovery that music and song truly are universal relied both on the sophistication of the tools employed to examine the data and on the collaboration of all those who took part in the research.

“It was exciting to me to be able to do this widespread cross-cultural comparison in music in a way that people have been doing with language for some time,” said O’Donnell. “It’s quite a unique project in the sense that I don’t think any one of us could have executed this on their own. People often have often speculated that music must have universal aspects across cultures, but no one has been able to support this claim with such comprehensive evidence until now.”

To read “Universality and diversity in human song” in Science by Samuel H. Mehr et al:

DOI: 10.1126/science.aax0868

The research was funded by the Harvard Data Science Initiative; the National Institutes of Health Director’s Early Independence Award; the Harvard Graduate School of Education/Harvard University Presidential Scholarship; the Harvard University Department of Psychology; a Harvard University Mind/Brain/ Behavior Interfaculty Initiative Graduate Student Award; the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program; the Microsoft Research postdoctoral fellowship program; the Washington University Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Office; the Columbia University Center for Science and Society; the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada; Fonds de Recherche du Québec Société et Culture; and ANR Labex IAST.

About McGill University

Founded in Montreal, Quebec, in 1821, McGill University is Canada’s top ranked medical doctoral university. McGill is consistently ranked as one of the top universities, both nationally and internationally. It is a world-renowned institution of higher learning with research activities spanning two campuses, 11 faculties, 13 professional schools, 300 programs of study and over 40,000 students, including more than 10,200 graduate students. McGill attracts students from over 150 countries around the world, its 12,800 international students making up 31% per cent of the student body. Over half of McGill students claim a first language other than English, including approximately 19% of our students who say French is their mother tongue.



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