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Perhaps Music Really Is a Universal Language

New research finds we can often identify a song's intended purpose, even when it's a product of a distant culture.
Native Americans from the drum band Yellow Hammer provide a beat on August 12th, 2005, at the MCI Center in Washington, D.C.

Native Americans from the drum band Yellow Hammer provide a beat on August 12th, 2005, at the MCI Center in Washington, D.C.

The notion that music speaks to all people, uniting us even as language divides us, has always seemed a bit too beautiful to be believed. Is it really likely that the expressive sounds of one civilization will convey the same meanings to another?

Well, it turns out that romantic notion is rooted in reality. A new study finds categorizing obscure songs by their intended function is surprisingly easy to do—even when they're the product of a faraway foreign land.

Universal patterns of human behavior steer songs "into recurrent, recognizable forms," writes a research team led by Samuel Mehr of Harvard University. It adds that these commonalities can be detected even as music maintains "its profound and beautiful variability across cultures."

In the journal Current Biology, Mehr and his colleagues provide evidence for this thesis. They utilize the library of recordings created by the Natural History of Song, which features vocal music drawn from "86 predominantly small-scale societies" from around the world.

These include several Native American tribes, including the Hopi and Navajo, as well as indigenous peoples from Europe, Asia, and Africa. Each song chosen was utilized for one of four social functions: dancing; use in a healing ceremony; to soothe a child, or put him or her to sleep; or to express romantic love.

The participants, recruited online, lived in a variety of countries: There were 250 from the United States, 250 from India, and 250 from other nations. All were unfamiliar with the music and unable to understand the lyrics.

They listened to 36 very short (14 seconds) song excerpts. After each, they expressed the degree to which they believed it was used for each of the aforementioned purposes, as well as two others: "to mourn the dead" or "to tell a story."

"Listeners' perceptions of song functions were in reliable agreement with the songs' actual functions," the researchers report. "When listening to dance songs, participants rated them as used 'for dancing' higher than they did for any other song type."

The same was true of lullabies and, to a lesser extent, songs used for healing. The one genre that was not clearly recognizable was love songs.

The researchers argue that evolutionary biology can at least partially explain why "songs that share social functions have convergent forms."

"Dance songs tend to have more singers, more instruments, more complex melodies, and more complex rhythms than other forms of music," they write. Mastering this material signals that a group is smart and capable—the type of people you'd be wise to ally with.

Lullabies, in contrast, tend to be simpler, slower, and sung by a single female voice. All those qualities suggest they are well-adapted to indicate to infants that their caregiver is paying attention.

OK, but why do songs expressing deep affection seem to vary more from culture to culture? "The short answer is, we don't know," Harvard's Manvir Singh, a co-author of the paper, tells Pacific Standard.

The way romantic love is expressed might vary considerably from one society to another, and "the music, similarly, takes all kinds of forms," he says. Or perhaps "love songs" is an overly broad category, encompassing a variety of emotions and behaviors, which are expressed in different ways.

Or it could be that love songs are more defined by their lyrics than their melodies or rhythms. Singh notes that many listeners got a sense that these songs were telling a story; not knowing the language, "they could not tell that those songs were in particular about love."

So romantic classics of the great American songbook like My Funny Valentine are unlikely to translate effectively, but Y.M.C.A. very likely will. Perhaps to truly communicate across cultures, it takes a Village People.