Music as a universal language

With poetic intuition, about two hundred years ago, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said “Music is the universal language of humanity”. Today, science seems to have found demonstrable proofs of this claim. Evidence is reported in a Science article that appeared some times ago and that illustrates the results of one of the largest and most articulated studies on music, the result of an international collaboration led by Harvard University.

The analysis, conducted drawing on over a century of ethnographic and ethnomusicological research. Highlights how by relating similar contexts or functions all the music of the world resembles or, retains common traits.

The study was devised by Samuel Mehr of the Harvard Data Science Initiative. Along with Manvir Singh, of Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology and Luke Glowacki, now a professor of anthropology at Pennsylvania State University. Music is often assumed to be a human universal language. Emerging from a specific evolutionary adaptation to music and/or a by-product of adaptations for effect, language, motor control, and auditory perception.

The universality of music, always affirmed and supposed, has never actually been demonstrated systematically and is questioned by the great diversity of music across cultures. The hypotheses of the evolutionary function of music are also not verifiable without complete and representative data on its forms and behavioral contexts in societies.

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The natural history of song

To conduct the study, the researchers put together an impressive musical and ethnographic archive called, The Natural History of Song. It consists, cassette tapes, reels, CDs, and files containing music and songs from 315 cultures representative of mostly small-scale societies. And provided with information of fundamental importance such as the context in which each music is used, news about the singers and the target audience, the duration, type of instrumental accompaniment, etc. The discography was also subjected to listening evaluations by experts and non-experts.

The analysis to which computational social science tools have been applied that minimize the influence of sampling error and other biases, aimed to answer six fundamental questions:

 Does music manifest itself universally?

What types of behaviour are associated with singing?

 How do they vary between societies?

Are the musical characteristics of a song indicative of its behavioural context (e.g. childcare)?

Do the melodic and rhythmic patterns of the songs vary systematically, like those found in language?

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How prevalent is tonality in musical modes?


The study of the ethnographic corpus shows that music appears in every observed society; that the variation of musical events is well characterized by three dimensions (formal situations, incitement, religious formulas); that musical behavior varies more within societies than between them on these within these dimensions; and that music is regularly associated with behavioral contexts such as childcare, healing, dance, and love. Analysis of the recorded corpus also shows that the identifiable acoustic characteristics of the songs (accent, tempo, tonality range, etc.) predict their primary behavioral context (love, healing, etc.); that the musical forms vary according to two dimensions (melodic and rhythmic complexity) while the tonality is widespread, perhaps universal.


 The researchers were able to state that music pervades social life in a similar way around the world. In this regard, Samuel Mehr stated: “As a university student, I was working on studies on the perception of children’s music and I started seeing all these works that claimed that music was universal. Well, now we can support it. “In particular, it has been possible to ascertain that the music that fulfils specific functions, such as a lullaby, a love song or a song of incitement to war, have recurring and stereotyped characters. Which make music an authentically universal language, common to the whole human race without cultural and language barriers.

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The results of the research show that human culture is built on universal psychological blocks, which translate into musical grammar. An idea variously supported for some time but which, as mentioned, had never found validation based on rigorous research. As the authors of the study argue, the scientifically-based demonstration of this assumption represents an important stimulus. And also a starting point for further research developments for different disciplinary fields such as psychology, anthropology, or linguistics.

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