The natural history of song – a human universal


“I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.”
– Terrence

One of the bizarre things about modern cultural anthropology is that its tendency toward extreme relativism means that it engages in so much “thick description” that generalities of humanity disappear in the avalanche of prose. A deep sense of ontological incommensurability creeps into the discussions of cross-cultural patterns. The prestige, what there is, of academic anthropology, then infects normal people, so that some can say that religion, as understood in the West, is qualitatively different from religion understand in the East. With a straight face.

I think this is wrong and leads us down a path to intellectual nihilism (well, actually, we’re at the end of that path today aren’t we!).

This sort of thing applies to other cultural phenomena as well. Consider music and in particular song. A new preprint uses the Human Area Relation Files (an ethnographic database) to statistically analyze patterns in songs across many societies, A natural history of song:

What is universal about music across human societies, and what varies? We built a corpus of ethnographic text on musical behavior from a representative sample of the world’s societies and a discography of audio recordings of the music itself. The ethnographic corpus reveals that music appears in every society observed; that variation in musical behavior is well characterized by three dimensions, which capture the formality, arousal, and religiosity of song events; that musical behavior varies more within societies than across societies on these dimensions; and that music is regularly associated with behavioral contexts such as infant care, healing, dance, and love. The discography, analyzed through four representations (machine summaries, listener ratings, expert annotations, expert transcriptions), revealed that identifiable acoustic features of songs predict their primary behavioral function worldwide, and that these features fall along two dimensions, melodic and rhythmic complexity. These analyses show how applying the tools of computational social science to rich bodies of humanistic data can reveal both universal features and patterns of variability in culture, addressing longstanding debates about each.

The figure at the top reports the three largest components of variation, formality, arousal, and religiosity. Not surprisingly, some types of songs are more weighted toward one feature than another. Lullabies are not particularly religious, arousing, or formal.

Interestingly, the vast majority of variation in songs is found within societies, not between them. There is some difference, with some societies lacking formal songs, at least in the ethnographic record. But, this illustrates that the basic repertoire for this cultural feature was probably present by the late Pleistocene in our species.

Songs seem to be aspects of human behavior which are both consumption and production goods. That is, on the individual and social level we consume songs for pleasure. On the individual level songs are essential parts of the parental toolkit to soothe the infant beast. They also serve a purpose in society to generate cohesion and produce fellow feeling. This is clear in a confessional religious context, but consider that drummers were important elements of the Ottoman war machine. Human cultural phenomena are so often multivalent that they need to be inspected and examined from a variety of dimensions.

I’m not a very musical person myself, so there is obviously individual variation in the ability to appreciate or produce music. But the basic cognitive toolkit seems to emerge out of a concert of neurological processes, somewhat distinct from common language (as evident by aphasics who can sing but can not speak).

4 thoughts on “The natural history of song – a human universal

  1. I should point out that your introductory superscription is a rejection of multiculturalism. One to which I heartily adhere. The author, ironically, was an African, most likely a Berber, who was sold as a slave to a Roman, who educated him and freed him.

    The subject of the post can be argued to be a proof, as if more were needed, that there is a human nature common to every human who has ever lived. That this is a universal truth is a fundamental pillar of conservative thought.

    BTW the authors name is Terence, with one R. His quote in Latin is: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto”

  2. There is evidence that other living species are also capable of enjoying music , perhaps not at the level of human beings , but at some more primitive levels, for example cows which are exposed to music produce more milk …., usually music is most enjoyed by species that can mimic articulate sounds like the parrot family but not so much our simian cousins , when scientist record the mating song of birds and listen to them with sensitive hearing aids they discover that each bird has its own song and that it has a lot of variation and subtle shifts in tone that the naked human auditory faculty is unable to hear , in short that it has a musical structure of singular complexity , certainly its purpose is to attract the female of each avian specie so there must be something attractive in its sound …….!! Still peoples capacity to be affected emotionally by music is a remarkable gift , more so their capacity to compose so many beguiling forms of music……., it is truly one of the marks of humanity that it can enjoy and compose music of such rich variety and intricacy.

  3. My dingo used to howl loudly every time I played a harmonica, but I’m not sure that qualifies.

Comments are closed.