As we all know, music is universal. Every culture, both in the past and present, has exhibited some type of musical expression or another and it serves a myriad of purposes: expressing emotions such as sadness, confidence, or love, it can soothe even the most hardened of hearts, it builds up tension during impactful moments in film, act as a baby’s lullaby, and many other purposes. However, despite their difference in genre and purpose, music has a quality that is universal in its intent. In fact, according to a study in Current Biology, it is possible for a person, of any nationality or culture, to identify the purpose of the music they are listening to.
Like, with animals, vocalization is an integral part of our world. Just how animals can differentiate the meanings behind the growls, barks, and screeches of their fellow species, so can we understand the various noises that we humans make, such as snorts, scoffs, and laughs. So why can’t music have the same effect? Well, that very question inspired Samuel Mehr, from Harvard’s Psychology department and co-author Manvir Singh, from Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, to create this study.
For the study, both Mehr and Singh enlisted the assistance over seven-hundred internet users from sixty different countries to listen to song excerpts from over eighty random small-scale societies, such as predominately hunter-gathers groups, from across the globe. After listening to each excerpt, the participants would then place each excerpt into one of six different categories correlating what with what the listener believed the purpose of the song was: dancing, soothing a baby, healing, expression of love, mourning, and story-telling.
This experiment, through the use of over twenty-thousand musical excerpts, resulted in the conclusive evidence that there was a level of familiarity in music. Despite the participants’ unfamiliarity with the societies that the music originated from, there were reliable inferences about the song functions that they listened to.
Mehr and Singh claimed that their findings found that there was a great distinction between dance music and lullabies. Participants claimed that much of the dance music they listened to was a lot quicker with its rhythm as well as “more exciting”. At the same time, lullabies tended to be slower and “sadder”. This showed that, despite their diversity, there is a unifying component that allows listeners to understand a song’s purpose.
Reading about this study makes me think about how similar we all are. If our music can be recognized throughout even the most obscure cultures, then why are we so insistent that we are all different? This is definitive proof that, at our core, humans are the same all around the world. Just another example of how music is changing the world.