Summary: While many musical themes are universally recognized, love songs are an exception.
The study involved playing music snippets to over 5,000 participants from 49 countries, asking them to classify each as dance, lullaby, healing, or love music.
Participants universally identified dance tunes and lullabies, but struggled with love songs. This might be because love songs can encompass a broad spectrum of emotions, from happiness to jealousy.
- Over 5,000 individuals from 49 countries, including isolated communities, participated in the study, listening to music samples in 31 different languages.
- Nearly all participants could identify dance music and lullabies, but only 12 out of 28 language groups could identify love songs.
- The varied recognition of love songs could be due to their wide emotional range and the influence of linguistic and cultural cues.
Music can take on many forms in cultures across the globe, but Yale researchers have found in a new study that some themes are universally recognizable by people everywhere with one notable exception — love songs.
“All around the world, people sing in similar ways,” said senior author Samuel Mehr, who splits his time between the Yale Child Study Center, where he is an assistant professor adjunct, and the University of Auckland, where he is senior lecturer in psychology. “Music is deeply rooted in human social interaction.”
For the new study, published Sept. 7 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Yale researchers played 14-second snippets of vocals from a bank of songs that originated from a host of cultures to more than 5,000 people from 49 countries. The research team included subjects not only from the industrialized world, but more than 100 individuals who live in three small, relatively isolated groups of no more than 100.
They then asked the listeners to rank the likelihood of each sample as being one of four music types: dance, lullabies, “healing” music, or love music.
Unlike most psychology experiments, which are conducted in one language, this experiment was performed in 31 languages. Yet regardless of the language used in the survey, people from all cultures could easily identify dance music, lullabies, and, to a lesser extent, even music created to heal. Recognition of what the researchers identified as love songs, however, lagged these other categories.
For instance, when we they analyzed responses based on language groupings, they found 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.
Why the difficulty in identifying musical themes about love?
“One reason for this could be that love songs may be a particularly fuzzy category that includes songs that express happiness and attraction, but also sadness and jealousy,” said lead author Lidya Yurdum, who works as research assistant at the Yale Child Study Center and is also a graduate student at the University of Amsterdam.
“Listeners who heard love songs from neighboring countries and in languages related to their own actually did a little better, likely because of the familiar linguistic and cultural clues.”
But other than love songs, the authors discovered, the listeners’ “ratings were largely accurate, consistent with one another, and not explained by their linguistic or geographical proximity to the singer — showing that musical diversity is underlain by universal psychological phenomena.”
“Our minds have evolved to listen to music. It is not a recent invention,” Yurdum said. “But if we only study songs from the western world and listeners from the western world, we can only draw conclusions about the western world — not humans in general.”
About this music and psychology research news
Original Research: Open access.
“Universal interpretations of vocal music” by Samuel Mehr et al. PNAS
Universal interpretations of vocal music
Despite the variability of music across cultures, some types of human songs share acoustic characteristics. For example, dance songs tend to be loud and rhythmic, and lullabies tend to be quiet and melodious.
Human perceptual sensitivity to the behavioral contexts of songs, based on these musical features, suggests that basic properties of music are mutually intelligible, independent of linguistic or cultural content.
Whether these effects reflect universal interpretations of vocal music, however, is unclear because prior studies focus almost exclusively on English-speaking participants, a group that is not representative of humans.
Here, we report shared intuitions concerning the behavioral contexts of unfamiliar songs produced in unfamiliar languages, in participants living in Internet-connected industrialized societies (n = 5,516 native speakers of 28 languages) or smaller-scale societies with limited access to global media (n = 116 native speakers of three non-English languages).
Participants listened to songs randomly selected from a representative sample of human vocal music, originally used in four behavioral contexts, and rated the degree to which they believed the song was used for each context.
Listeners in both industrialized and smaller-scale societies inferred the contexts of dance songs, lullabies, and healing songs, but not love songs. Within and across cohorts, inferences were mutually consistent. Further, increased linguistic or geographical proximity between listeners and singers only minimally increased the accuracy of the inferences.
These results demonstrate that the behavioral contexts of three common forms of music are mutually intelligible cross-culturally and imply that musical diversity, shaped by cultural evolution, is nonetheless grounded in some universal perceptual phenomena.