Singing researchers probe music, language across cultures

Key similarities across cultures in the sounds of human speech and traditional music emerged in a unique study.

One of the 75 researchers: Latyr Sy (Senegal)
One of the 75 researchers: Latyr Sy (Senegal)

Seventy-five researchers from 46 countries recorded themselves performing traditional music and speaking in their own languages in a novel experiment investigating cross-cultural differences and similarities.

With rare exceptions, the rhythms of songs and instrumental melodies were slower than for speech, while the pitches were higher and more stable, according to the study published in Science Advances.

Unique for the number of languages represented – 55 – and the diversity of the researchers, the study provides “strong evidence for cross-cultural regularities,” according to senior author Dr Patrick Savage of Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland, a psychologist and musicologist who sang ‘Scarborough Fair’.

Speculating on underlying reasons, Savage, a Rutherford Discovery Fellow in the University’s School of Psychology, suggests song is more predictably regular than speech to facilitate synchronization and social bonding.

With rare exceptions, the rhythms of traditional songs and instrumental melodies were slower than for speech, while the pitches were higher and more stable

“Slow, regular, predictable melodies make it easier for us to sing together in large groups,” he says. ”We’re trying to shed light on the cultural and biological evolution of two systems that make us human: music and language.”

Tapping into academic networks for cost-effective global reach, Savage and lead author Dr Yuto Ozaki from Keio University in Japan recruited researchers across Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe and the Pacific to sing, perform instrumentals, recite lyrics and describe songs, providing audio samples to be analysed for features such as pitch, timbre and rhythm.

Dr Ozaki sang the Japanese folk song ‘Ōmori Jinku’. In Auckland, Professor Suzanne Purdy sang the Māori love song ‘Pōkarekare Ana’.

Aleksandar Arabadjiev (Macedonia)
Aleksandar Arabadjiev (Macedonia)

Participants’ languages included Yoruba, Mandarin, Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic, Ukrainian, Russian, Balinese, Cherokee, Kannada, Spanish, Aynu, and dozens more.

Researchers with extensive vocal training included Dr Shantala Hegde, a Hindustani classical music singer and neuroscientist, and expert instrumentalists included Senegalese drummer Latyr Sy and a national champion of Japan’s Tsugaru-shamisen instrument, Gakuto Chiba.

Experts in ethnomusicology, music psychology, linguistics, and evolutionary biology took part, including the two most recent presidents of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition, Professor Peter Pfordresher (a native English speaker, pianist, and psychologist) and Dr Psyche Loui (a native Cantonese speaker, violinist, and neuroscientist).

Gakuto Chiba (Japan)
Gakuto Chiba (Japan)

Limitations of the study included the small sample size within each language. Additionally, while everyone taking part could sing a traditional song in their own language, not all participants could play its melody on an instrument. In some traditions, this idea didn’t even make sense. In those cases, researchers performed just the song’s rhythm using percussive instruments like a drum or clapping their hands.

Additional studies funded by Marsden Fund and Rutherford Discovery Fellowship awards from the Royal Society Te Apārangi will include more participants from a subset of the languages, including Māori and English.

Neddiel Elcie Muñoz Millalonco (Chile)
Neddiel Elcie Muñoz Millalonco (Chile)

Watch a video of the singing researchers

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Paul Panckhurst | media adviser
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