Quirks & Quarks

Take the quiz that shows the universal qualities of music

Scientists have shown that people are remarkable adept at identifying the purpose of music, even when it's from different cultures
Musicians play the Japanese instrument koto at a Japanese festival in Sao Paulo, Sunday, June 15, 2008. (AP Photo/ Andre Penner) (The Associated Press)

How universal is music?

A new study suggests you have a universal translator for music in your head. No matter where it's from, or how it's produced, humans can understand the meaning and purpose of music.  

Travelling around the world — or even around Canada — you can hear the enormous variety of music. There's music for dancing, for celebrating, music for mourning, contemplative music, quiet lullabies, and music that tells stories and set the mood. There's music played on everything from jugs to nose flutes to electronic equipment of incredible complexity. And each part of the world has its own traditions of instrumentation, singing, and subject matter.

Testing musical listening

But a new study suggests that despite this enormous variation, humans understand the basics of music, no matter where its from, pretty much universally. Two researchers from Harvard University, Dr. Samuel Mehr, Director of the Music Lab in the Department of Psychology, and Manvir Singh, a PhD student in Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard, collaborated on the study.  

They recruited 750 listeners from 60 countries, and played brief snippets — only 14 seconds — of different types of music from 86 different traditions. The music came from mostly small-scale societies, including hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers, representing a broad sampling of different regions and cultures. The listeners were then asked to identify the purpose of the music from several different categories. For example, they had to identify whether it was a love song, a lullaby, or dance music.

Everyone, everywhere, gets music

Despite having no familiarity with the traditions of the music they were listening to, the volunteers were able, with remarkable accuracy, to identify the purpose of those random 14-second song excerpts. This suggests that not only is music universal among human cultures, but important signatures of emotional content and intent are universal as well.