Music to just about everyone’s ears

Statistical analysis finds globally shared rhythms, pitch changes, instrumentation

religious fiesta in Peru

WORLD MUSIC  Researchers have identified 18 features that characterize many musical performances around the world, including by this brass band accompanying a dance and performance troupe during a religious fiesta in Peru. Many of music’s common features involve group performance and dancing.

Joshua Katz-Rosene/CUNY 

Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news: Scientists have for the first time identified key characteristics of music worldwide. The findings lay the groundwork for deciphering why people everywhere sing, play instruments and find melodies so compelling.

No musical features, not even simple scales composed of distinct pitches, are absolute universals that occur in all song traditions, say enthnomusicologist Patrick Savage of Tokyo University of the Arts and his colleagues. However, 18 features are statistical universals: They occur in a large majority of musical cultures, the researchers report June 29 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Ten of those features commonly occur together and revolve around group performance and dancing. Music everywhere tends to be simple and repetitive, the investigators find. Singing is typically accompanied by playing musical instruments, drumming and dancing.

That’s consistent with a longstanding idea that music took hold in human cultures because of its ability to bind people into groups and to coordinate collective activities. “If you want to understand how music evolved, a party with music and dancing is a much better model than a Chopin piano prelude recital,” Savage says.

It’s also possible that music evolved as a way for men to advertise attractive qualities to potential mates, the researchers say. In the study’s global sample, males perform most instrumental and vocal music. Restrictions on females performing music in male-dominated cultures may explain that pattern, Savage says. It’s unclear whether males also performed more of the music in ancient human societies, he adds.

Researchers have long debated whether any musical features are universal or any one definition of music applies to all cultures. Savage’s team is the first to account for historical relationships among various musical cultures by referring to previous calculations of evolutionary links among languages spoken in those cultures (SN: 11/19/11, p. 22), remarks cognitive neuroscientist Aniruddh Patel of Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Developed by other researchers, the linguistic method compares speech sounds, grammatical rules and other elements of talk.

Relationships identified using the linguistic evidence largely matched those found in a comparison of worldwide musical styles conducted by the researchers.

Savage and his colleagues searched for 32 musical features — from singing one syllable per musical note to dancing along with musical performances — in a previously collected sample of 201 recordings of native music from nine parts of the world. These regions included parts of Africa, the Americas, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Oceania. Statistically universal features were defined as those that appeared in substantially more than half of the global sample of recordings and in at least half of the sample for each region.

These widely shared features included pitches organized in simple scales, melodies with descending pitches or pitches that rise before falling, and two- or three-beat rhythms. They also included singing from the chest, as opposed to singing extremely low or in a falsetto.

Contrary to what many researchers expected, pentatonic, or five-note, musical scales — the foundation of Western music — turned out not to be universal.

The new list of statistically universal musical features “gives researchers specific targets for cross-species investigations to study how ancient and widespread the biological foundations of music really are,” Patel says. Previous studies have examined humanlike aspects of birdsong (SN: 4/15/00, p. 252), parrots’ ability to move to musical beats (SN: 5/23/09, p. 8) and rhythmic drumming by chimpanzees.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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