Global groove: humans’ shared musical understandings

Humans can pick the intended purpose of songs from distant cultures, University of Auckland research shows.

From New Zealand to Namibia, Brazil to Bangladesh, a global experiment tested whether music is understood in the same way across cultures.

The answer: broadly, yes.

Playing song snippets to over 5,000 participants from 49 countries, scientists asked people to classify each as either a dance, lullaby, healing, or love song.

Even relatively isolated smaller-scale societies took part: the Nyangatom in Ethiopia, the Mentawai in Indonesia, and the Tannese Ni-Vanuatu in Vanuatu.

Randomly selected, the 14-second snippets came from an archive called the Natural History of Song Discography, recorded in mostly smaller-scale societies during the early to mid-20th century.

Listeners in both industrialised and smaller-scale societies tended to be able to pick the dance songs and lullabies, and, to a lesser extent, the healing songs, but not the love songs, in the experiment led by Yale University and the University of Auckland.

New Zealanders were strong at intuiting the songs intended for dancing, coming in fifth out of the 49 countries on this measure. People from Hong Kong were number one. 

“Across cultures, listeners seem to be able to often understand what purposes songs are intended for,” said senior author Samuel Mehr, a senior lecturer in psychology at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland. “Music evolves differently across cultures but seems to be grounded in some universal perceptual phenomena.”

Mutual musical understandings may be like humans’ abilities to decode facial expressions, which tend to be intelligible across cultures.

Playing song snippets to over 5,000 participants from 49 countries, scientists asked people to classify each as a dance, lullaby, healing, or love song.

The study was special for its diversity, including speakers of 31 languages, after previous research focused almost exclusively on English speakers.

“Focusing solely on English speakers from western Western countries has been all too common in cognitive science – taking a wider approach means we can assess human psychology instead of a nonrepresentative subset of humans,” said co-author Dr Courtney Hilton, of the University of Auckland.

The general failure to identify love songs could be because a message of love doesn’t require any typical musical format. In contrast, the other three song types tend to follow certain acoustic patterns globally: for example, dance songs tend to be loud and rhythmic, and lullabies tend to be quiet and melodious."

Love songs may be “a fuzzy category of music when produced in an unfamiliar language,” the scientists and their co-authors wrote in the paper just published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Analysing responses based on language groupings showed that 27 of the 28 groups correctly rated dance songs as more appropriate for dancing than other songs. All 28 of the groups were able to identify lullabies. But only 12 of the 28 groups were able to identify love songs.

The scientists hope to in future study more than just the four types of intuitions about music which featured in the research. 

Media contact

Paul Panckhurst | media adviser
M: 022 032 8475