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Exploring the Universality of Human Song

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Analysis of Music-Internationally

It’s often said that music is a universal language. But is it really universal? Some argue that humans are just too culturally complex and their music is far too varied to expect any foundational similarity. Yet some NIH-funded researchers recently decided to take on the challenge, using the tools of computational social science to analyze recordings of human songs and other types of data gathered from more than 300 societies around the globe.

In a study published in the journal Science [1], the researchers conclude that music is indeed universal. Their analyses showed that all of the cultures studied used song in four similar behavioral contexts: dance, love, healing, and infant care. What’s more, no matter where in the world one goes, songs used in each of those ways were found to share certain musical features, including tone, pitch, and rhythm.

As exciting as the new findings may be for those who love music (like me), the implications may extend far beyond music itself. The work may help to shed new light on the complexities of the human brain, as well as inform efforts to enhance the role of music in improving human health. The healing power of music is a major focus of the NIH-supported Sound Health Initiative.

Samuel Mehr, a researcher at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, led this latest study, funded in part by an NIH Director’s Early Independence Award. His multi-disciplinary team included anthropologists Manvir Singh, Harvard, and Luke Glowacki, Penn State University, State College; computational linguist Timothy O’Donnell, McGill University, Montreal, Canada; and political scientists Dean Knox, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, and Christopher Lucas, Washington University, St. Louis.

In work published last year [2], Mehr’s team found that untrained listeners in 60 countries could on average discern the human behavior associated with culturally unfamiliar musical forms. These behaviors included dancing, soothing a baby, seeking to heal illness, or expressing love to another person.

In the latest study, the team took these initial insights and applied them more broadly to the universality of music. They started with the basic question: Do all human societies make music?

To find the answer, the team accessed Yale University’s Human Relations Area Files, an internationally recognized database for cultural anthropologists. This rich resource contains high-quality data for 319 mostly tribal societies across the planet, allowing the researchers to search archival information for mentions of music. Their search pulled up music tags for 309 societies. Digging deeper in other historical records not in the database, the team confirmed that the remaining six societies did indeed make music.

The researchers propose that these 319 societies provide a representative cross section of humanity. They thus conclude that it is statistically probable that music is in fact found in all human societies.

What exactly is so universal about music? To begin answering this complex question, the researchers tapped into more than a century of musicology to build a vast, multi-faceted database that they call the Natural History of Song (NHS).

Drawing from the NHS database, the researchers focused on nearly 5,000 vocally performed songs from 60 carefully selected human societies on all continents. By statistically analyzing those musical descriptions, they found that the behaviors associated with songs vary along three dimensions, which the researchers refer to as formality, arousal, and religiosity.

When the researchers mapped the four types of songs from their earlier study—love, dance, lullaby, and healing—onto these dimensions, they found that songs used in similar behavioral contexts around the world clustered together. For instance, across human societies, dance songs tend to appear in more formal contexts with large numbers of people. They also tend to be upbeat and energetic and don’t usually appear as part of religious ceremonies. In contrast, love songs tend to be more informal and less energetic.

Interestingly, the team also replicated its previous study in a citizen-science experiment with nearly 30,000 participants living in over 100 countries worldwide. They found again that listeners could tell what kinds of songs they were listening to, even when those songs came from faraway places. They went on to show that certain acoustic features of songs, like tempo, melody, and pitch, help to predict a song’s primary behavioral function across societies.

In many musical styles, melodies are composed of a fixed set of distinct tones organized around a tonal center (sometimes called the “tonic,” it’s the “do” in “do-re-mi”). For instance, the researchers explain, the tonal center of “Row Your Boat” is found in each “row” as well as the last “merrily,” and the final “dream.”

Their analyses show that songs with such basic tonal melodies are widespread and perhaps even universal. This suggests that tonality could be a means to delve even deeper into the natural history of world music and other associated behaviors, such as play, mourning, and fighting.

While some aspects of music may be universal, others are quite diverse. That’s particularly true within societies, where people may express different psychological states in song to capture their views of their culture. In fact, Mehr’s team found that the musical variation within a typical society is six times greater for that reason than the musical diversity across societies.

Following up on this work, Mehr’s team is now recruiting families with young infants for a study to understand how they respond to their varied collection of songs. Meanwhile, through the Sound Health Initiative, other research teams around the country are exploring many other ways in which listening to and creating music may influence and improve our health. As a scientist and amateur musician, I couldn’t be more excited to take part in this exceptional time of discovery at the intersection of health, neuroscience, and music.

References:

[1] Universality and diversity in human song. Mehr SA, Singh M, Knox D, Ketter DM, Pickens-Jones D, Atwood S, Lucas C, Jacoby N, Egner AA, Hopkins EJ, Howard RM, Hartshorne JK, Jennings MV, Simson J, Bainbridge CM, Pinker S, O’Donnell TJ, Krasnow MM, Glowacki L. Science. 2019 Nov 22;366(6468).

[2] Form and function in human song. Mehr SA, Singh M, York H, Glowacki L, Krasnow MM. Curr Biol. 2018 Feb 5;28(3):356-368.e5.

Links:

Sound Health Initiative (NIH)

Video: Music and the Mind—A Q & A with Renée Fleming & Francis Collins (YouTube)

The Music Lab (Harvard University, Cambridge, MA)

Samuel Mehr (Harvard)

NIH Director’s Early Independence Award (Common Fund)

NIH Support: Common Fund


Crowdsourcing 600 Years of Human History

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Family Tree

Caption: A 6,000-person family tree, showing individuals spanning seven generations (green) and their marital links (red).
Credit: Columbia University, New York City

You may have worked on constructing your family tree, perhaps listing your ancestry back to your great-grandparents. Or with so many public records now available online, you may have even uncovered enough information to discover some unexpected long-lost relatives. Or maybe you’ve even submitted a DNA sample to one of the commercial sources to see what you could learn about your ancestry. But just how big can a family tree grow using today’s genealogical tools?

A recent paper offers a truly eye-opening answer. With permission to download the publicly available, online profiles of 86 million genealogy hobbyists, most of European descent, the researchers assembled more than 5 million family trees. The largest totaled more than 13 million people! By merging each tree from the crowd-sourced and public data, including the relatively modest 6,000-person seedling shown above, the researchers were able to go back 11 generations on average to the 15th century and the days of Christopher Columbus. Doubly exciting, these large datasets offer a powerful new resource to study human health, having already provided some novel insights into our family structures, genes, and longevity.


Powerful Antibiotics Found in Dirt

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Dirt

Caption: Researchers found a new class of antibiotics in a collection of about 2,000 soil samples.
Credit: Sean Brady, The Rockefeller University, New York City

Many of us think of soil as lifeless dirt. But, in fact, soil is teeming with a rich array of life: microbial life. And some of those tiny, dirt-dwelling microorganisms—bacteria that produce antibiotic compounds that are highly toxic to other bacteria—may provide us with valuable leads for developing the new drugs we so urgently need to fight antibiotic-resistant infections.

Recently, NIH-funded researchers discovered a new class of antibiotics, called malacidins, by analyzing the DNA of the bacteria living in more than 2,000 soil samples, including many sent by citizen scientists living all across the United States [1]. While more work is needed before malacidins can be tried in humans, the compounds successfully killed several types of multidrug-resistant bacteria in laboratory tests. Most impressive was the ability of malacadins to wipe out methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) skin infections in rats. Often referred to as a “super bug,” MRSA threatens the lives of tens of thousands of Americans each year [2].


Got a Great Research Idea? “All of Us” Wants to Hear It!

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PeopleOne of the boldest undertakings that NIH has ever attempted, the All of Us Research Program has been hard at work in a “beta” testing phase, and is now busy gearing up for full recruitment in the spring. This historic effort will enroll 1 million or more people in the United States to share information about their health, habits, and what it’s like where they live. This information will be part of a resource that scientists can use to accelerate research and improve health. How? By taking into account individual differences in lifestyle, environment, and biology, researchers will uncover paths toward realizing the full potential of precision medicine.

Before embarking on this adventure, All of Us is reaching out to prospective researchers, community organizations, and citizen scientists—including people just like you—to get their input. Imagine that the project has already enrolled 1 million participants from all over the country and from diverse backgrounds. Imagine that they have all agreed to make available their electronic health records, to put on wearable sensors that can track body physiology and environmental exposures, and to provide blood samples for lab testing, including DNA analysis. Is there a particular research question that you think All of Us could help answer? Possible topics include risks of disease, factors that promote wellness, and research on human behavior, prevention, exercise, genetics, environmental health effects, health disparities, and more. To submit an idea, just go to this special All of Us web page.


Studies of Dogs, Mice, and People Provide Clues to OCD

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OCD

Thinkstock/wildpixel

Chances are you know someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It’s estimated that more than 2 million Americans struggle with this mental health condition, characterized by unwanted recurring thoughts and/or repetitive behaviors, such as excessive hand washing or constant counting of objects. While we know that OCD tends to run in families, it’s been frustratingly difficult to identify specific genes that influence OCD risk.

Now, an international research team, partly funded by NIH, has made progress thanks to an innovative genomic approach involving dogs, mice, and people. The strategy allowed them to uncover four genes involved in OCD that turn out to play a role in synapses, where nerve impulses are transmitted between neurons in the brain. While more research is needed to confirm the findings and better understand the molecular mechanisms of OCD, these findings offer important new leads that could point the way to more effective treatments.