Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building, Motown – all names synonymous with the creation of often formulaic yet highly successful styles of popular music that swept out of the United States and spread around the globe. Without being aware of it, these mid-twentieth-century hit-makers underpinned the finding of a new study: there are universal elements in music that connect with people everywhere.
In a paper published in the journal Current Biology, researchers from Harvard University in the US and New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington say songs with a similar purpose – love songs, lullabies or dance music – tend to sound similar, no matter which culture they come from, Cosmos Magazine says.
The findings are consistent with the existence of universal links between form and function in vocal music, the researchers say.
“Despite the staggering diversity of music influenced by countless cultures and readily available to the modern listener, our shared human nature may underlie basic musical structures that transcend cultural differences,” says the report’s lead author, psychologist Samuel Mehr, from Harvard.
“We show that our shared psychology produces fundamental patterns in song that transcend our profound cultural differences,” adds co-author Manvir Singh, also from Harvard. “This suggests that our emotional and behavioural responses to aesthetic stimuli are remarkably similar across widely diverging populations.”
The researchers say they have found evidence of recurrent, perceptible features of three domains of vocal music across 86 human societies. These inform the striking consistency of understanding across listeners from around the globe – “listeners,” the add, “who presumably know little or nothing about the music of indigenous peoples”.
Among non-human animals, there are links between form and function in vocalisation. For instance, when a lion roars or an eagle screeches, it sounds hostile to naive human listeners. But it wasn’t clear whether the same concept held in human song.