Music is a vital part of cultures around the world, and the idea that it has some universal features is not new. But a paper recently published in the journal Science analyzes these characteristics systematically—finding evidence of both variation and common threads running through the world’s songs and song-related behaviors.
“Music perception and music production are not quirks of the human mind,” says Harvard University researcher Samuel Mehr, the lead author of the study. “There is some underlying structure in how musical behaviors vary, or don’t, worldwide.”
To explore which elements seem to be universal parts of the human musical experience, researchers analyzed more than 4,700 ethnographic descriptions of song performances in traditional societies. These texts detailed, for example, the context in which the song was sung and what the singers and listeners were doing. The researchers also compiled field recordings of songs from traditional cultures across the world, which were analyzed in a number of ways, including machine summaries of the audio tracks, input from lay listeners and expert musicians, and expert transcriptions of musical features.