A Global Rhythm and Beat Unites Humanity

November 26, 2015 | Reece Alvarez

Silhouette of a dancing woman against a sunset
Photo credit: D. Sharon Pruitt/Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

While music is a global phenomenon, a new study suggests there are universal similarities in music that connect all of humanity.

Music is practiced by all cultures across the globe and has existed throughout history, but a new study by the University of Exeter and Tokyo University of the Arts found that songs from around the world tend to share features, including a strong rhythm, that enable coordination in social situations and encourage group bonding.

Despite decades of skepticism about the presence of universal aspects of music across cultures, the study provides strong evidence for the existence of common features in music. The results, which are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), support the idea that music is a powerful social glue that helps to bond societies together.

"Our findings help explain why humans make music,” said Dr. Thomas Currie from the University of Exeter. “The results show that the most common features seen in music around the world relate to things that allow people to coordinate their actions, and suggest that the main function of music is to bring people together and bond social groups — it can be a kind of social glue.”

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The researchers analysed 304 recordings of stylistically diverse music from across the world to reveal the common features. Although they found no absolute universals, they found dozens of statistical universals (i.e. features that were consistently present in a majority of songs across different world regions). These included features related to pitch and rhythm as well as social context and interrelationships between musical features.

"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,” Currie said. “Even here [in the U.K.] 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."

The results showed that rhythms based on two or three beats were present in music from all regions sampled -- North America, Central/South America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceania, according to a statement from the University of Exeter.

In this image, a brass band accompanies a dance-drama troupe as they process down a street in San Agustín de Cajas, Peru, during a patron-saint fiesta.
A brass band accompanies a dance-drama troupe as they process down a street in San Agustín de Cajas, Peru, during a patron-saint fiesta. Photo credit: Image courtesy of Joshua Katz-Rosene (CUNY)

"In the old days, Western people believed that Western scales were universal. But then when we realised that other cultures had quite different ideas about scales, that led some people to conclude that there was nothing universal about music, which I think is just as silly,” said lead author Pat Savage, a PhD student from the Tokyo University of the Arts. “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.”

"My daughter and I were singing and drumming and dancing together for months before she even said her first words,” he said. “Music is not a universal language... music lets us connect without language.”

Based on materials provided by the University of Exeter.

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