PerspectiveEthnomusicology

The world in a song

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Science  22 Nov 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6468, pp. 944-945
DOI: 10.1126/science.aay2214

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Summary

Although all human cultures appear to create music, the music of different cultures is incredibly varied, leading some scholars to question whether music is really, as Henry Longfellow claimed in 1835, a universal “language” of our species. If true, it would suggest that universal cognitive mechanisms exist that can both explain the unity and allow the diversity of the world's musics. Do such universal mechanisms exist? If so, can we investigate them empirically? On page 970 of this issue, a multidisciplinary team led by Samuel A. Mehr presents a major step forward in this enterprise, combining the methods of modern data science with musical recordings and ethnographic records to provide an insightful overview of universal principles underlying sung music (1). Building on a new collection of song recordings and ethnographies from around the world called the Natural History of Song (NHS) database (2), the authors find that not only is music universal (in the sense of existing in all sampled cultures) but also that similar songs are used in similar contexts around the world.

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