Science Proves Music Really Is the Universal Language
It turns out that your high school band teacher, in all his wide-eyed, bleeding heart optimism, was right—music really is the universal language, and science has just proved it.
In the "Form and Function in Song" study published today in Current Biology, researchers show that vocal songs that manage to trigger emotional reactions like soothing a crying child or expressing love to a partner all sound similar to each other, despite coming from different parts of the world. Because of this, people in over 60 countries arrived at similar feelings about those types of songs based only of 14-second audio clips. This confirms the existence of universal links between form and function in music.
"Why do songs that share social functions have convergent forms?" asks the study. "If dance songs are shaped by adaptations for signaling coalition quality, their contextual and musical features should amplify that signal. The feature ratings in [our second experiment] support this idea: dance songs tend to have more singers, more instruments, more complex melodies, and more complex rhythms than other forms of music."
"If lullabies are shaped by adaptations for signaling parental attention to infants, their acoustic features should amplify that signal. The feature ratings in [our second experiment] also support this idea: lullabies tend to be rhythmically and melodically simpler, slower, sung by one female person, and with low arousal relative to other forms of music."
"We show that our shared psychology produces fundamental patterns in song that transcend our profound cultural differences," said study co-author Manvir Singh of Harvard. "This suggests that our emotional and behavioral responses to aesthetic stimuli are remarkably similar across widely diverging populations."
This study raises two key questions that require additional research, however.
Despite the fact that the participants in the first experiment were from all over the globe, "all were both English literate and had access to an expansive variety of music on the Internet."
This means that they all also had a great deal of pre-exposure to music, which bears the question: "do form-function inferences generalize to all listeners worldwide, even those who have no shared musical experience, or who know only the music of their own culture?" The study says that a stronger and more universal test would include those living in isolation, with limited access to music from other cultures.
Second, the perceptions of these listeners surveyed are ultimately subjective. In only hearing short clips, the listeners lack the context and background to make contextual-based statements about what the music means.
Turns out that music might be all over the galaxy, too—in 2016, NASA released recordings of the music that astronauts heard by the far side of the moon in 1969 (It was not Pink Floyd.) This 13 billion-year-old star can still make music, too. More recently, AI composed its first black metal album, which is obviously the most metal thing ever.