The pedagogue team Samuel Mehr, from Harvard University (USA), has researched the music of more than 300 traditional societies around the world, from the Wolof of West Africa to the Guarani of South America, through the agricultural villages of South Korea and the Scottish Highlands. His conclusion is inspiring: “Music, indeed, is universal. It exists in all societies. ” And there is something more surprising, according to Mehr: similar songs are used in similar contexts, all over the planet. There are universal patterns.
Mehr directs the Harvard Music Laboratory, where researchers try to answer three seemingly simple, but devilish questions: “What is music? How does it work? Why does it exist? For five years, the team has created a monumental "Natural History of the Song", with sound records of four types of songs – love, cradle, dance and healing – of almost a hundred cultures of the world, with detailed annotations of ethnographers and anthropologists taken during the last century.
Scientists have analyzed three dimensions of each song: formality, considered high in themes developed for large ceremonies; excitement, associated with collective dances; and the religious factor, with a high score in funeral songs and shamanic rites. Researchers have also classified the songs according to their rhythmic and melodic complexity, using experts and computer programs. The results, published today in the magazine Science, show that songs composed for similar contexts usually present similar musical features. A lullaby is a lullaby, whether you are a Bedouin from the Libyan desert or an Canadian Arctic Eskimo. The form seems associated with the function.
“One of the big questions without answering is how the perception of music varies throughout the world. We have studied 30,000 listeners in an experiment and are able to find out what kind of song they are listening to, even if the songs are from societies in other countries, ”Mehr details. In January 2018, his team already showed, with hundreds of online surveys, that people from all over the planet can find out the exact function of traditional songs from very different cultures, simply by listening to the subject for 14 seconds. Scientists now work in the field, repeating the experiment in traditional small and isolated societies.
The researcher Samuel Mehr even speaks of a “musical grammar” shared by all human brains
"The lullabies and dance songs are ubiquitous and very stereotyped," explains anthropologist Manvir Singh, co-author of the research. Just as the American linguist Noam Chomsky defends the existence of a universal grammar shared by all languages, Singh suggests that human culture is built everywhere from the same essential psychological bricks.
Musicologist Emilio Ros-Fabregas directs the Traditional Music Fund of the Institution Mila y Fontanals (IMF-CSIC) of Barcelona, a collection of Spanish musical heritage that guards more than 20,000 popular melodies collected between 1944 and 1960 throughout the country. Ros-Fabregas applauds the "apparent solidity" of the new study, but is skeptical about the universality of music. “I challenge anyone to hear a fragment of Yaegoromo, a Japanese song from the repertoire of oral tradition, and to find out its message, ”says the researcher.
Mehr, however, even speaks of a "musical grammar" shared by all human brains. “In music theory, it is often assumed that tonality (the principle of organizing musical compositions around a central note) is an invention of Western musicians, but our data raise the controversial possibility that it is a universal characteristic of music , ”Notes Mehr. “This suggests pressing questions about the structure that underlies music worldwide. And about whether our minds are designed to compose music, ”he says.
In his book How the mind works (Ediciones Destino, 1997), the Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker suggested that music is not an evolutionary adaptation, but a byproduct of auditory perception, control of movements, language and other faculties of the human being. Pinker, co-author of Mehr's study, believes that the new results are consistent with his hypothesis. "The universal characteristics of human psychology incline people to compose and enjoy songs with certain rhythmic or melodic patterns that are naturally associated with certain desires or moods," says Pinker.