Is music a universal language

Music is actually a "universal language"

Vienna - music is commonly referred to as a "universal language" - but is that really the case? Two scientific studies with Austrian participation can now answer this question with a resounding yes. The researchers discovered great similarities in music from different cultures around the world.

In its large-scale study in the journal Science, the international team led by Samuel Mehr from Harvard University (USA) used data that ethnomusicologists and anthropologists had collected over more than a hundred years. This comprehensive treasure trove of information and recordings of songs from a total of 315 cultures - from the Arctic to the tropics to the inhabitants of remote islands - has also been partially saved by the scientists in two new databases ("Natural History of Song" databases, or NHS) convicted. The fundamental question was: To what extent can differences and parallels be made out between the songs sung.

From yodelling to chorales to heavy metal

The enormous range of vocal music, which has developed at different times and in different contexts, is known to range from sustained Gregorian chant to a softly sung lullaby to a heavy metal-backed grunt-scream crossover. On the other hand, forms of yodelling existed in local alpine regions as well as in the mountains of New Guinea.

The much-cited idea of ​​music as a kind of cross-cultural "universal language" has persisted since 1835, as Tecumseh Fitch and Tudor Popescu from the Department of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna in a perspective article accompanying the work of Mehr and colleagues in "Science" write. However, there is no solid evidence of this and numerous experts are skeptical of this.

State-of-the-art data evaluation

The NHS databases include songs that are either used as accompaniment to dance, to bring healing or to help children fall asleep, or to serve the love song genre, which is popular around the world. New data science methods were also used to assess and evaluate the characteristics of the recordings.

One of the most striking findings from the study is that there is sung music in each of the societies studied. In addition, words were built in everywhere, there was dancing in some form and all melodies and rhythms were also structured in a certain, understandable way, write the scientists. Tonality, in the sense of the structure of melodies on the basis of a few tones that are at certain distances from a reference or fundamental tone, was also to be found everywhere. On average, there were greater differences between the pieces of music within a community than between the songs of sometimes more distant cultures.

Similar music for similar occasions

The social function of a piece could be predicted relatively reliably through its design - across a wide variety of groups. "So people use similar music in similar contexts around the world," write Fitch and Popescu. While the realization that dance songs are usually faster and more rhythmic than lullabies is obvious, there was also the rather surprising finding that healing songs presented themselves melodically less variably than dance music across cultures.

According to the authors of the study and commentators, the results are strong evidence that human musicality is also subject to a universal cognitive mechanism that can explain both the great differences and the striking similarities. "Music is really universal", sum up Mehr and his team. Fitch and Popescu attest that the current study is "a big step forward" in clarifying the question of whether music can actually be described as a "universal language". (red, APA, November 22, 2019)