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Is Music a Human Trait?

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When toddlers hear music with a strong beat, they can’t help it—they just have to dance. Their little diapered bottoms start bouncing up and down; their faces break out in a smile. If you’ve ever seen this spontaneous dancing joy, it’s easy to believe in the universal power of a good tune. I mean, really, could “All About The Bass” be so different from a Mongolian tune played with a khun tovshuur? Isn’t this innately human? Well, researchers weren’t so sure—different cultures use different musical scales—and the idea of music transcending human culture has been a subject of debate for decades.

Score one for us believers. A new study from the University at Exeter and Tokyo University of the Arts proved that songs from around the world share a variety of similar features, particularly a strong rhythm. The researchers analyzed just over 300 recordings of songs, from diverse regions and musical styles. Oceania, North America, Central and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia were all represented. Dozens of statistical universals were found, relating to pitch, social context, and, especially, rhythm—two or three beat rhythms were present in music from each of the regions sampled.

“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,” wrote the study’s lead author, Pat Savage.

“Our findings help explain why humans make music,” wrote co-author Thomas Currie. “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.”

Music, the researchers theorize, is a kind of social glue for humans. Music calls people together. Then it allows us to move past our own individual experiences to unite into a group. “Music is not a universal language,” the study reads. “Music lets us connect without language.”

I think the bouncing toddlers of the world are likely to agree.

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her latest book is Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Spirituality & Health’s Wellbeing Editor, Kathryn Drury Wagner, is based in Savannah. She’s been a contributor to the magazine for many years, and she loves sharing ways to build a healthy, mindful, and sustainable lifestyle. 


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