The universality of music

Philip Ball:

Christmas, as everyone knows, officially begins the first time—often now in mid-November—you hear the ancient refrain: “So here it is, Merry Christmas…”

It may be guaranteed this year that plenty of British people of one political persuasion or another (maybe all) will certainly not be having fun at all. But you might still muster up the spirit to sing a few carols, because Christmas is arguably the most musically codified of all western festivals. It is a demonstration of one of music’s universal functions as an essential aspect of ritual.

That music possesses a global universality is often asserted (“Music is a universal language”), yet proving it is challenging. The predicate is rather ill-defined in any case. Yes, every culture that we know of has some kind of music—but do these diverse musics share anything in common, for example in terms of function, affect and content? An extensive ethnographic study published in Science in November presented the case that they do.

Exercises like this are nothing new, but the latest study, conducted by an international team led by data scientist Samuel Mehr of Harvard University, is notable for both the breadth of its cultural coverage and the depth of the analysis that looked for shared properties. Using two databases—audio recordings of songs from 315 societies, and ethnographic texts from 60 that document the uses of songs in that culture—the researchers were able to mine rich cross-cultural resources to compare both the musical characteristics and the social contexts and functions of music. They found that the variations are greater within than between societies—for example, hip hop might be more different from western sacred music than the latter is from Tibetan sacred music. The study found that most music has a “tonal centre”—in western terms, a key, or a sense of a “home note” that the melody will return to—on which naïve listeners can generally agree. And the acoustic features of music—the pitches and tempos, say—are rather systematically linked to the emotional goals and responses of the performers and audiences across cultures: “sad” music, say, tends always to be softer and slower.