Can You Tell a Lullaby From a Love Song?

This article was first published in the New York Times on 25 Jan 2018. Written by Alex Marshall.

A new study suggests that some types of song are universal, recognizable by people across all cultures. But not everyone is convinced.

Aborigines of northern Australia perform a corroboree dance for visitors in 1978. Music for the corroboree is part of a recent study on “the natural history of song.” AP Photo/Peter O'Loughlin

The world’s music cultures are meant to be unique. A Rwandan farmer’s lovesick song is not supposed to have much in common with that of a similarly lovesick farmer in the Scottish Highlands. But a group of Harvard scientists is trying to find out whether that is really the case, or whether there are actually universal features underpinning all our songs, in a project called The Natural History of Song.“We’re interested in getting a sense of what’s the same, and what’s not, across many, many cultures’ vocal music,” said Samuel Mehr, a cognitive scientist and one of the project’s directors (he also plays various woodwind instruments in the pit orchestra for musicals like “Chicago”). Can you tell what a song’s used for even when you have no experience of the culture that made it?

We’ll ask you to listen to eight songs from traditional societies, then guess what the songs are used for. Scientists used a version of this test to help find out if there’s anything universal underpinning the world’s music.

Take a quiz based on the study

“If you go back to people like Darwin and Herbert Spencer,” Dr. Mehr continued, “they all wrote about music and every one of them said, ‘This is weird, why do we do this? How come it’s a love song that calms the dispirited youth? Why is it that the crying baby falls asleep when I sing to it?’ These are old, old questions, but it’s now the case that we have the computational tools to start really answering them.”

The project’s first paper published in journal Current Biology this week, is an attempt to see if lullabies, dance songs, healing and love songs contain features that make them recognizable to anyone. The group curated a sample of 118 such songs from 86 traditional societies, like aboriginal hunter-gatherers in Australia and reindeer herders in Arctic Russia. They then played short excerpts to 750 internet users in 60 countries. Most listeners correctly identified lullabies and dances. Healing songs, less so. Love songs? Not so much.

“What this means is that in the cultures we studied, songs that are used for dancing, to calm babies down and in ceremonies of the shamanistic, spiritual type, share enough features that it’s likely not only are they universal types of music, but the way they’re performed has universals,” Dr. Mehr said.

The alternative explanation is that everyone who did the test shares a culture, and that influenced their decisions — “They’re all internet users, they’ve all probably heard Taylor Swift and Bieber,” Dr. Mehr admitted.

Taylor Swift

But he is planning to repeat the experiment with isolated groups, to see if they can identify lullabies, dances and healing songs correctly, too. These will include Tsimane people from the Bolivian Amazon, horticulturalist-foragers who have had little contact with Western culture. They are unlikely to have heard Justin Bieber.

Dr. Mehr’s team is planning further studies, including analyzing transcriptions of melodies to see if there are similarities and examining some 5,000 descriptions of performances in traditional societies to look for patterns.

The work has been welcomed by cognitive scientists. But one group of academics has not given it such a warm response: ethnomusicologists, the very people who collected many of the recordings and descriptions the Harvard project is using.

The current study “is based on all kinds of presumptions” that ethnomusicologists would disagree with, said Matt Sakakeeny, associate professor of music at Tulane University in New Orleans. He said these included the ideas that you could remove songs from their social, political and cultural contexts, or draw conclusions from analyzing just a handful of lullabies.

Professor Sakakeeny sang the pop song “Hey, Baby” to his daughter as a lullaby, he added — how would the scientists deal with that? “My suspicion is they’d dismiss it as statistically irrelevant because it’s not a lullaby, and to me that’s fundamentally the problem.” More collaboration between scientists and ethnomusicologists was needed, he added.

Prof. Anne Rasmussen of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, a former president of the Society of Ethnomusicology, agreed. “I was trained to recognize that while music is universal, its meaning is not,” she said. “People all over the world interpret the music of their own culture in their own way,” Dr. Mehr said in response to the criticisms. “That’s a fascinating topic for research, but we’re asking a different question: whether people interpret the music of other cultures in similar ways.”

The search for universals has a long and often uncomfortable history, particularly in the early 1900s when some German scholars linked it with ideas about racial superiority. “There were a lot of people saying, essentially, ‘Let’s see why Beethoven is the best music,’ ” said Patrick Savage, an ethnomusicologist at Keio University in Japan who briefly assisted the Harvard project.

Alan Lomax

In the 1960s, Alan Lomax, the renowned collector of folk music, invented a system called Cantometrics to classify several thousand songs in the hope of spotting patterns. He believed that “as people live so do they sing,” meaning that a society’s music changed as it developed economically. But ethnomusicologists quickly discredited his work, which was not helped by some awkward claims (he thought, for instance, that societies where infants experienced trauma produced music with a wider range). In the 1970s one ethnomusicologist wrote, “The only universal aspect of music seems to be that most people make it.” The phrase has stuck. “The idea that there’s anything universal in music has been looked down upon for so long, I do think more basic demonstrations like this study are important,” Dr. Savage said.

Dr. Savage has made his own search for universals, analyzing 304 songs and pieces of instrumental music and finding many statistical commonalities, such as that most music favored two-beat rhythms (he said that using three beats, as in a waltz, was actually pretty rare and hypothesized that that was linked to dancing: “We have two feet, not three”). Dr. Savage also found that songs were more likely to have descending melodies, probably because people run out of breath as they sing, making it harder to hit high notes.

There’s room for lots more work, he added. “I think the most interesting area, but maybe the most controversial — potentially even dangerous — is aesthetics. Are there universal standards for what is beautiful music?”

Some studies have already touched on this. Josh McDermott, an assistant professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, has played the Tsimane dissonant chords to find out whether the Western preference for harmonious sounds was universal, and therefore potentially biologically determined. The Tsimane, whose traditional music is sung solo and lacks harmony, liked all the chords equally, suggesting it’s not. (Professor McDermott is collaborating with the Harvard team on future projects.)

Despite these other efforts to find universals in music, the controversy around the Natural History of Song is unlikely to die down. But this doesn’t concern Dr. Mehr. The project’s title may be bold (“To us, it was just catchy,” he said) and the team may not have been clear they would be happy to discover no universals exist, but he is not worrying about criticisms unless he can learn from them. “We’re doing science,” he said. “The goal isn’t to make everybody in the world happy, it’s to learn facts about the world.”