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Is Music Similar Across Cultures?

Khmer traditional musicians play one of the Khmer traditiional music for the Cambodian-American Heritage Dance Troupe dancers to perform for a big audience at the Library of Congress, in Washington D.C., in May, 2017. (Courtesy photo of Cambodian-American Heritage Dance Troupe)
Is Music Similar Across Cultures?
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Love songs, dance tunes, bed time songs for children – all of these kinds of music share patterns across cultures, a new study finds. Researchers who set up the study say this suggests a commonality in the way human minds create music.

The findings were reported in Science magazine.

Samuel Mehr was the lead author of a report on the study. He is a research associate in psychology at Harvard University in Massachusetts.

Mehr noted that the study supports “the idea that there is some sort of set of governing rules for how human minds produce music worldwide.”

He and other researchers studied musical recordings and ethnographic records from 60 societies around the world. They looked at a mix of very different cultures, such as the Highland Scots in Scotland, Nyangatom nomads in Ethiopia, and Aranda hunter-gatherers in Australia.

The researchers found that music had a link with behaviors such as dancing and loving, among others.

Manvir Singh is a graduate student in Harvard’s department of human evolutionary biology and a co-author of the study. Singh noted that childrens’ lullabies were likely to be slow and fluid while dance songs tended to be fast and lively.

Another co-author of the study was Luke Glowacki, an anthropology professor at the Pennsylvania State University. He noted that the social purpose of the music influences how it sounds.

He said: “Dance songs sound a certain way around the world because they have a specific function. Lullabies around the world sound a certain way because they have a specific function ... If music were entirely shaped by culture and not human psychology you wouldn’t expect these deep similarities to emerge in extremely diverse cultures."

Glowacki noted how amazing the musical patterns across cultures were.

He said: “The fact that a lullaby, healing song or dance song from the British Isles or anywhere else in the world has many musical features in common with the same kind of song from hunter-gatherers in Australia or horticulturalists in Africa is remarkable.”

I'm Jonathan Evans.

Will Dunham reported on this story for Reuters. John Russell adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

pattern – n. the regular and repeated way in which something happens or is done

author – n. a writer of a book or report

ethnographic – adj. from the noun ethnography, the study of human races and cultures

graduate student – n. a person who has successfully completed a bachelor's degree and is continuing their studies

lullaby – n. a song used to help a child fall asleep

function - n. the special purpose or activity for which a thing exists or is used

amazing – adj. of or involving great surprise or wonder

feature – n. a quality or property of something

horticulturalist -- n. people or scientists who grow fruits, vegetables, and flowers

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