Is music what makes us human?

By | May 4, 2021

Kevin Berger writes:

In the past two years, the debate over whether music is universal, or even whether that debate has merit, has raged like a battle of the bands among scientists. The stage has expanded from musicology to evolutionary biology to cultural anthropology. This summer, in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, more than 100 scholars sound off on evolution and universality of music. I love the din. The academic discord gives way to a symphony of insights into the meaning of music in our lives. It may be a cliché to say music is the sound of our shared humanity. But it feels transcendent to be in tune with a person from another culture. There’s something alchemical about knowing we share the same biology. Originate from the same place. Share the same desires. But there’s more to the story. My recent adventures in the fields of music research have instilled in me, deeper than ever before, the feeling that music is what makes us human. I also have a new appreciation of what universality in music really means.

A 2019 paper in Science, “Universality and Diversity in Human Song,” got me thinking anew. The paper concludes, “Music is in fact universal.” The conclusion is based on an impressive computational analysis of two cross-cultural datasets, one of recordings drawn from 86 societies, the other of ethnographers’ notes about musical behaviors from 60 societies around the world. The authors assert music is the product of “underlying psychological faculties” sparked by the basics of living. They write that four song types are heard in every society—love songs, lullabies, healing songs, dance songs. All cultures are animated by people who fall in love, have babies, seek spiritual health, and, if I may quote Teddy Pendergrass, get up, get down, get funky.

“We’ve shown you don’t need to be familiar with a particular culture to understand and enjoy its music,” Samuel Mehr, lead author on the paper, told me. Mehr is a research associate in the Department of Psychology at Harvard, where he is principal investigator at the Music Lab, a psychology laboratory studying music perception and music production. “You can find music meaningful and artistically interesting, and even glean reliable information, objective facts, from music made in different cultures. That’s really interesting socially because it shows there’s a common ground in this artistic product across cultures.” [Continue reading…]

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