Research Article

Universality and diversity in human song

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Science  22 Nov 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6468, eaax0868
DOI: 10.1126/science.aax0868

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Cross-cultural analysis of song

It is unclear whether there are universal patterns to music across cultures. Mehr et al. examined ethnographic data and observed music in every society sampled (see the Perspective by Fitch and Popescu). For songs specifically, three dimensions characterize more than 25% of the performances studied: formality of the performance, arousal level, and religiosity. There is more variation in musical behavior within societies than between societies, and societies show similar levels of within-society variation in musical behavior. At the same time, one-third of societies significantly differ from average for any given dimension, and half of all societies differ from average on at least one dimension, indicating variability across cultures.

Science, this issue p. eaax0868; see also p. 944

Structured Abstract

INTRODUCTION

Music is often assumed to be a human universal, emerging from an evolutionary adaptation specific to music and/or a by-product of adaptations for affect, language, motor control, and auditory perception. But universality has never actually been systematically demonstrated, and it is challenged by the vast diversity of music across cultures. Hypotheses of the evolutionary function of music are also untestable without comprehensive and representative data on its forms and behavioral contexts across societies.

RATIONALE

We conducted a natural history of song: a systematic analysis of the features of vocal music found worldwide. It consists of a corpus of ethnographic text on musical behavior from a representative sample of mostly small-scale societies, and a discography of audio recordings of the music itself. We then applied tools of computational social science, which minimize the influence of sampling error and other biases, to answer six questions. Does music appear universally? What kinds of behavior are associated with song, and how do they vary among societies? Are the musical features of a song indicative of its behavioral context (e.g., infant care)? Do the melodic and rhythmic patterns of songs vary systematically, like those patterns found in language? And how prevalent is tonality across musical idioms?

RESULTS

Analysis of the ethnography corpus shows that music appears in every society observed; that variation in song events is well characterized by three dimensions (formality, arousal, religiosity); that musical behavior varies more within societies than across them on these dimensions; and that music is regularly associated with behavioral contexts such as infant care, healing, dance, and love. Analysis of the discography corpus shows that identifiable acoustic features of songs (accent, tempo, pitch range, etc.) predict their primary behavioral context (love, healing, etc.); that musical forms vary along two dimensions (melodic and rhythmic complexity); that melodic and rhythmic bigrams fall into power-law distributions; and that tonality is widespread, perhaps universal.

CONCLUSION

Music is in fact universal: It exists in every society (both with and without words), varies more within than between societies, regularly supports certain types of behavior, and has acoustic features that are systematically related to the goals and responses of singers and listeners. But music is not a fixed biological response with a single prototypical adaptive function: It is produced worldwide in diverse behavioral contexts that vary in formality, arousal, and religiosity. Music does appear to be tied to specific perceptual, cognitive, and affective faculties, including language (all societies put words to their songs), motor control (people in all societies dance), auditory analysis (all musical systems have signatures of tonality), and aesthetics (their melodies and rhythms are balanced between monotony and chaos). These analyses show how applying the tools of computational social science to rich bodies of humanistic data can reveal both universal features and patterns of variability in culture, addressing long-standing debates about each.

Studying world music systematically.

We used primary ethnographic text and field recordings of song performances to build two richly annotated cross-cultural datasets: NHS Ethnography and NHS Discography. The original material in each dataset was annotated by humans (both amateur and expert) and by automated algorithms.

Abstract

What is universal about music, and what varies? We built a corpus of ethnographic text on musical behavior from a representative sample of the world’s societies, as well as a discography of audio recordings. The ethnographic corpus reveals that music (including songs with words) appears in every society observed; that music varies along three dimensions (formality, arousal, religiosity), more within societies than across them; and that music is associated with certain behavioral contexts such as infant care, healing, dance, and love. The discography—analyzed through machine summaries, amateur and expert listener ratings, and manual transcriptions—reveals that acoustic features of songs predict their primary behavioral context; that tonality is widespread, perhaps universal; that music varies in rhythmic and melodic complexity; and that elements of melodies and rhythms found worldwide follow power laws.

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