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The Songs Heard 'Round The World: Harvard Study Reveals Universal Elements In Music

In this Sept. 1, 1996 file photo, Grammy winning gospel singer Andrae Crouch sings during service at the Christ Memorial church in Pacoima, Calif. (Frank Wiese, File/AP)
In this Sept. 1, 1996 file photo, Grammy winning gospel singer Andrae Crouch sings during service at the Christ Memorial church in Pacoima, Calif. (Frank Wiese, File/AP)

American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow famously asserted in 1835 that "music is the universal language of mankind."

But experts long dismissed the idea that music itself has any universal features.

“If you just look at the surface features of the audio, there tends to be a lot of differences,” says Max Krasnow, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard University.

Now, a new study from Harvard University that looks past superficial aspects of music provides the latest evidence that Longfellow was right: music is indeed universal – and in more ways than one.

The study published last week in Science comes from what the researchers call the “Natural History of Song," a pair of databases containing music in 28 languages from 315 different societies in 45 countries around the world. Some of the music dates back more than 100 years.

The project suggests that lullabies, religious songs, healing songs and love songs exist in every one of the 315 societies observed.

And those song types share characteristics across different societies. For example, the researchers say lullabies are generally slower and more soothing with simpler rhythms.

Those common musical threads make sense if you think about how music affects the brain, says Psyche Loui, associate professor of music at Northeastern University, who studies the neuroscience of music.

"If we hear soothing sounds, the brain relaxes and heart rates decrease," says Loui. “Maternal bonding is so fundamentally important across all cultures, and that's what the music is tapping into: it's a way for mothers to change the physiology of infants."

The connections between music and its functions may be universal as well, the Harvard researchers say. Their study found that people who listened to songs from unfamiliar cultures were often able to correctly guess what kind of song they were hearing – so listeners could identify a lullaby or a dance song – whether they had musical training or not.

In fact, the study found greater variation within individual societies than between them.

"Everybody's musical repertoire contains high formality and lower formality," Kransow says. "Everybody's musical repertoire contains high arousal and low arousal. You might imagine that maybe there are some cultures that explore one part of that space and another culture that explores a different part of that space. But that's actually not what we find."

Krasnow refers to the human voice as mankind’s “first instrument” and says understanding the common elements of music could lie in studying the origins of song. He uses lullabies as an example.

Our idea was that [the lullaby] was one of the primary contexts that actually caused music to evolve in our species,” says Krasnow. “Infants can't solve their safety problems on their own. What they need is the attention of a caregiver in order to solve that problem for them."

"As far as we can tell," Krasnow says, "infant-directed song seems to be a human universal.”

But the lullaby isn't alone in that regard.

The research team has replicated some of the listener experiments in parts of the world where English is not commonly spoken, Krasnow says, hoping to determine whether listeners in those countries would make the same conclusions about the music.

"And so far, the evidence looks like the answer to that is a resounding yes," he says. "It seems like the musical ear is the same all over the world."

Related:

Khari Thompson Twitter Field Producer, Morning Edition
Khari Thompson is the field producer for WBUR's Morning Edition.

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