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article imageUnpicking the universal features of global music

By Tim Sandle     Nov 26, 2019 in Science
Can music be universal? A new study suggests so. The research examines the concept that music from any country shares important commonalities, whatever the apparent differences in sound and rhythm.
Two strands for research from the U.S and Austrian universities suggest that music composed and performed from any location on the planet is connected, with the sounds sharing commonalities. These common aspects exist whatever the obvious differences.
According to Dr. Samuel Mehr (Harvard University) and Tecumseh Fitch and Tudor Popescu (University of Vienna) music is the one thing that connects all cultures. This is based on a combination of anthropology and cognitive biology.
Many music historians have been skeptical over the idea that music has a commonality, especially with the idea of universality. Scholars of ethnomusicology, universality is not something that has been accepted when it comes to music. Ethnomusicologists tend to favor the idea that these musical tendencies are entirely the product of culture.
However, the new research indicates there are deep universal aspects of human musicality. This fits with the idea that brain evolution and preconditions for language have allowed for the emergence of musicality simultaneously with the emergence of language
As an example, Dr. Mehr notes that from a study of all cultures that each cultural group creates similar kinds of music for similar contexts. As examples, dance music always tends to be fast and rhythmic, whereas lullabies are soft and slow. This seems to apply to any culture and any context. Other examples are with ‘healing songs’, which tend use fewer notes.
Furthermore, all cultures display tonality which refers to the construction of a small subset of notes derived from some base note (as with the diatonic music scale). This draws the researchers to conclude the existence of a fundamental "human musicality."
This is based on a small number of fixed pillars. The researchers assess these as hard-coded predispositions, which they see as rooted in a physiological infrastructure based on humanity’s shared biology.
The 'musical pillars' are enhanced with the specifics of individual cultures, giving different variations according to different parts of the world or within cultural groups.
The research is divided into two papers, both published in the journal Science. The first is simply titled “The world in a song.”
The second research paper is called “Universality and diversity in human song.”
More about Music, Culture, universality, ethnography
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