Music is a powerful force that connects us across the globe. Our brains are wired to appreciate music, and it’s not just a recent invention. Although music can take many different forms across cultures, Yale researchers have discovered in a recent study that some themes are instantly recognisable to everyone, with the significant exception of love songs.
“All around the world, people sing in similar ways,” said senior author Samuel Mehr, who splits his time between the Yale Child Study Centre, where he is an assistant professor adjunct, and the University of Auckland, where he is a senior lecturer in psychology. “Music is deeply rooted in human social interaction.”
More than 5,000 people from 49 different nations participated in the new study, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For the study, Yale researchers played 14-second vocal excerpts from a bank of songs that had origins in a variety of civilizations. The research team recruited participants from the industrialised globe in addition to more than 100 people who reside in three modest, geographically remote groups totalling no more than 100.
The listeners were then asked to rank the chance that each sample was one of four different genres of music: dance, lullabies, “healing,” or love music.
Identification of love songs lagged behind
This experiment was carried out in 31 languages, as opposed to the majority of psychological studies that are done in a single language. Nevertheless, regardless of the survey’s chosen language, participants from all cultures were able to quickly recognise dance music, lullabies, and, to a lesser extent, even music intended to promote healing. The researchers’ classification of love songs fell behind these other groups, nevertheless.
For instance, they discovered that 27 of the 28 language-based groups accurately identified dance tunes as being more suitable for dancing than other music when they evaluated the responses based on language groupings. The 28 groups were all able to recognise lullabies. Only 12 out of the 28 groups were able to recognise love songs, though.
Why the difficulty in identifying musical themes about love?
“One reason for this could be that love song may be a particularly fuzzy category that includes songs that express happiness and attraction, but also sadness and jealousy,” said lead author Lidya Yurdum, who works as a research assistant at the Yale Child Study Centre and is also a graduate student at the University of Amsterdam. “Listeners who heard love songs from neighbouring countries and in languages related to their own actually did a little better, likely because of the familiar linguistic and cultural clues.”
But other than love songs, the authors discovered, the listeners’ “ratings were largely accurate, consistent with one another, and not explained by their linguistic or geographical proximity to the singer — showing that musical diversity is underlain by universal psychological phenomena.”
“Our minds have evolved to listen to music. It is not a recent invention,” Yurdum said. “But if we only study songs from the Western world and listeners from the Western world, we can only draw conclusions about the Western world — not humans in general.”
Materials provided by Yale University. Original written by Bill Hathaway. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
YouTube video: The Language of Music
Lidya Yurdum, Manvir Singh, Luke Glowacki, Thomas Vardy, Quentin D. Atkinson, Courtney B. Hilton, Disa Sauter, Max M. Krasnow, Samuel A. Mehr. Universal interpretations of vocal music. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2023; 120 (37) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2218593120
Cite This Page:
Yale University. “Where is the love? Musical recognition crosses cultures — with an exception.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 September 2023. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/09/230907203749.htm>.
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