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Everyone understands a lullaby: Human brains may have shaped universally-appreciated traits in music

Even if you don’t understand the lyrics, your brain may be wired to recognize the meaning of music from around the world. No matter what the finer nuances of a song may be, there’s evidence that some core element of a song’s genre may be universally understood. So just as you would never mistake a lullaby with a dance anthem in your native tongue, there’s a good chance you can also tell them apart when listening to songs by the Mentawai people of Indonesia. At least in broad strokes, it seems that humans everywhere have very similar concepts of what a dance versus a love song should sound like.

That idea may sound simple enough, but figuring out how to test is isn’t easy. Finding ways to untangle a person’s cultural background from music they’re listening to isn’t a small task, because that same background likely informs our perception of that music. To hunt for signs of universal musical concepts, researchers spent years assembling a database of music from around the world, then sorted that music by region and the type of song according to four categories: dance songs, lullabies, healing songs and love songs. Clips of those songs were played for English-speakers from 60 different countries, simply asking them to pick a category for each song they heard. If they could correctly identify a love song in a language and style they weren’t familiar with, it would suggest that some aspect of that song was shared across cultures.

With 750 listeners reporting, researchers found that dance songs and lullabies were the most easily identified. Apparently, soothing a baby is a similar process no matter where one lives. Love songs and healing songs weren’t so clear, a fact probably compounded by a lack of healing songs from Scandinavia or the United Kingdom. Overall, this first experiment suggests that there are some universally understood aspects of music, but figuring out what those are, and why they exist, are still open questions.

Possible sources of musical synchronicity

The hypothesis about how humans would end up with universal elements in our music range from ideas around our brain structure to a bit of convergent evolution. One explanation may be that some of these musical concepts, like a lullaby, are hard wired into our brains to be created and appreciated, with each culture adding their own flourish on top of a core formula for a song.

Alternatively, our brains may provide an interest in sound and stimuli, and that musicians have learned to trigger that response, with certain tunes just being the most time-tested method for doing so. In that case, a lullaby works because it takes advantage of brain functions that originally involved for other purposes, unrelated to music.

There’s also a chance that these shared traits between songs are a case of convergence. Through other environmental pressures, like a desire for community building, displaying status and more, musicians everywhere have been guided to similar-sounding songs. Each musical lineage started independently, rather than in any specific brain structure, but has nonetheless converged on a single way to perform a dance song because quicker tempos and more layered instrumentation just does that job better than anything else.

At this point, more people need to participate in the listening tests. While the initial participants hailed from many different countries, the second phase of testing will aim to include viewpoints of non-English speakers, particularly from more isolated cultures. If these songs are still universally understood at that point, we can really start looking for what defines each genre in our minds, and how that core evolved in the first place.

Source: Some Types Of Songs Are Universally Identifiable, Study Suggests by Rebecca Hersher, Goats and Soda

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