Will we soon have a universal language

Study of musicVocal music as a universal language

Until recently, attempting a systematic, comprehensive evaluation of music-ethnological research would not have been possible, says Samuel Mehr, a trained musician, psychologist and head of the "Music Lab" at Harvard University:

"But now we're in 2019, now it's a lot easier to get access to anything. We can search many, many different archives. We can contact colleagues on the other side of the world and ask them to browse their personal collections for audio samples." . And we have very cheap access to digitization of old sound recordings. "

In fact, the data from Samuel Mehr and his colleagues are not initially collected themselves, but already exist:

"On the one hand, the raw data are in text form. They come from ethnographic studies of 60 different cultural communities. These are descriptions of how and in what situation members of these communities sang certain songs, they are published in a database called 'Human Relations Area Files 'at Yale University. And the other raw data consists of sound recordings that we gathered from archives and personal collections of anthropologists and musicologists. "

Music as a universal form of expression

If there were to be such a thing as music as a "universal language of mankind", then it would mean that there is a connection between certain situations of human feeling or behavior - and certain musical genres or forms of expression.

In previous studies, Samuel Mehr and his colleagues had already identified three categories, three situational contexts, which are evidently particularly meaningful for the most objective possible classification of music with a sociological meaning. First: "formality" - is the situation ceremonial or private, are there many adults present or just one person and one child? Second, the level of awareness or arousal. Is the situation lively with many participants or is it calm and intimate? And third: religiosity. Is the context spiritual or worldly?

And on the other hand, there are obviously four types of songs that can be clearly differentiated, at least in vocal music: dance songs, lullabies for babies, ritual healing songs and finally love songs.

The social context shapes the musical form

According to Samuel Mehr, there are clear connections between the sociological situations and the musical forms:

"We collected a whole spectrum of data for every song from the archives. On the one hand, an algorithmic analysis of the audio files, then an auditory assessment by laypeople, then an assessment by musical experts and finally an analysis of the song transcripts, i.e. the notation We have extracted certain information from it - again using algorithms - that even professional listeners cannot provide, such as the pitch distribution and the average interval size. "

The result: Even musical laypeople were able to accurately assign song examples from foreign cultures - and identify them as dance, lullaby, healing or love song. A machine learning algorithm, which had been trained with a subset of the data, was then able to assign new, previously unknown song examples to an emotional or situational context with a high degree of accuracy.

Even foreign music can be accurately assigned

According to Samuel Mehr and his colleagues, there is not a globally characteristic melody or rhythm for a certain situational song genre. A lullaby among the Iroquois, for example, sounds very different from one from Greece. But there is certainly a certain characteristic balance of objective musical factors in the songs from all of the cultures studied - such as pitch range, tempo, complexity of melody and rhythm, and the most frequently used interval. And that can evidently be identified by both listeners and algorithms.

All of this suggests that there are indeed universal connections between certain fundamental psychological dispositions of people in all cultures. Your emotional moods, longings and social occasions lead to the production and enjoyment of certain forms of music. But is this a result of evolutionary pre-determinations or of cultural processes? Do we hear this way because it is innate or because we have learned it?

"We don't really know that yet. If we observe a phenomenon or behavior that seems to be universal worldwide, one explanation is that it could be firmly anchored in the brain, it could be innate. But another explanation would be: It could also the effect of a convergent cultural evolution could be that we develop similar behaviors which then look as if they were innate. "