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Science dances to Longfellow’s tune

Music categories share features across cultures, research suggests

By G.S. Mudur in New Delhi
  • Published 22.11.19, 2:24 AM
  • Updated 22.11.19, 2:24 AM
  • 2 mins read
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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Shutterstock

Scientists have provided the strongest evidence yet for what American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had declared 184 years ago — that “music is the universal language of mankind”.

Researchers have found that songs that share a particular intention, whether lullabies or dance numbers or love songs, possess similar musical features across cultures worldwide.

Their study, which examined 118 songs from 86 cultures, including three from India, has detected structural similarities within four categories of songs with similar functions, suggesting humans across the planet use like music for like objectives.

For instance, the scientists have found that a Marathi lullaby is similar to the lullabies sung by Highland Scots in Britain and the Nahua indigenous people of Central America. A Garo dance song is similar to a Yaqui dance song from northern Mexico and a Tlingit dance song from the US Pacific Northwest Coast.

“Our findings suggest that humans everywhere, from Punjab to Guatemala, share psychological mechanisms that make certain sounds seem appropriate in particular emotional and behavioural contexts,” Manvir Singh, a researcher at the human evolutionary biology department at Harvard University and study team member told The Telegraph.

The paper was to be published in the US journal Science on Friday.

Singh working with colleagues Samuel Mehr and Luke Glowacki created a database called the “Natural History of Song” and packed it with ethnographic and music information from 315 societies across 60 cultures and a set of 118 songs from 86 cultures covering 30 geographic regions.

They noted that four categories of songs — lullabies, dance songs, love songs and healing songs — shared intra-category features.

Lullabies are slow and soothing with fewer pulses, and the sound is fluid and gentle; dance songs are faster, lively and rhythmic; and love songs tend to build and release tension with a broader range of pitches compared with lullabies, Singh said. Healing songs have shorter notes than love songs and vary more in rhythm than dance songs.

“What our study shows is that when we as humans of a particular culture make music, while the sounds may seem unique, they actually reflect deep features of human psychology coupled with social processes,” said Glowacki, who is now a professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University.

The findings are significant because some music scholars have questioned Longfellow’s 1835 assertion that music shares some universal features across cultures.

The American ethnomusicologist George List had for instance in a 1971 research paper asserted: “The only universal aspect of music seems to be that most people make it.… I could provide pages of examples of the non-universality of music. This is hardly worth the trouble.... Does classical music communicate to every American? Does rock and roll communicate to every parent….”

Until now, most claims about universal patterns in music were based on anecdotal experiences and assertions. “We now have strong scientific evidence that music has profound regularities across cultures,” Mehr, principal investigator at Harvard’s Music Lab, told this newspaper.

The database of 86 songs the researchers examined had samples of lullabies from the Central Africa, Northern Australia, North America, among other sites and cultures; healing songs from Uttar Pradesh, Central America, Africa and North America; and love songs and dance songs from similarly diverse cultures.

The researchers also found that music was present in all 315 societies they probed through their Natural History of Song ethnographic database, consistent with the claims of other writers and scholars since Longfellow.

“These findings indicate the existence of some basic but fundamental principles that connect musical styles with societal functions and emotional registers, and (suggest) that these can be scientifically analysed,” said W. Tecumseh Fitch, professor of cognitive biology at the University of Vienna, Austria, who was not associated with the study.

Fitch has co-authored a commentary on the significance of the study in the journal, saying it combines data science, anthropology and psychology providing an “exciting way” to address musicology.