Humans dance to the same beat around the world

John Hopton for – @Johnfinitum

An in-depth scientific study looking at music from all over the world has found there to be many commonalities between the music of different cultures, despite widespread belief on the contrary.

The study, carried out by the University of Exeter, UK, and Tokyo University of the Arts, Japan, took samples from more than 300 songs from North America, Central/South America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. They found that rhythm and singing style had similarities across the planet, as did the gender make-up of performers.

The researchers found that music is important for social cohesion in all parts of the world.

“In the West we can sometimes think of music as being about individuals expressing themselves or displaying their talent, but globally music tends to be more of social phenomena,” said Dr. Thomas Currie from the University of Exeter.

“Even here (in the West) we see this in things like church choirs, or the singing of national anthems. In countries like North Korea we can also see extreme examples of how music and mass dance can be used to unite and coordinate groups.”

“Now we’ve shown that despite its great surface diversity, most of the music throughout the world is actually constructed from very similar basic building blocks and performs very similar functions, which mainly revolve around bringing people together,” added lead author Pat Savage, a PhD student from the Tokyo University of the Arts.

What aspects of songs are common?

Rhythm style was a major commonality found by the study, with researchers saying that despite “decades of skepticism” from observers, “humans across the world dance to the same beat.” In addition, it was found that real words were most commonly used in vocals (as opposed to nonsense like “la la la” which sound as if the songwriter wanted to clock off early and catch up with some groupies). “Chest voice” was most commonly used as opposed to artificially high-pitched falsetto voices, and vocals accompanied by instruments as opposed to a cappella style were more common, as well.

In terms of the gender of performers, it was found that male performers were more prevalent everywhere, and that groups tended to have all of one gender rather than being mixed. The bias towards male performance was true of singing, but even more so of instrumental performance, the researchers said.

What kind of music was studied?

“The study largely concentrated on traditional songs,” Dr. Currie said.

“The samples were focused on mainly traditional music from around the world,” he told redOrbit. “We think that many of the features help make it easier for groups of people to move in a coordinated manner and might be important in ritual settings, etc.”

When asked if the same similarities could be assumed to apply to contemporary music, he replied: “Good question. It’s difficult to say from this analysis. However, what I would predict is that it might depend on the situation and the function the music was performing.”

“So we might expect that in situations where music is being performed in a communal setting, people celebrating something together perhaps, then it would have these features. On the other hand, if it is more in a situation of one person or a small number of people performing and others listening more passively (think piano recital) then it may well not show these features quite so much.”


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