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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


Performing at IDWeek 2019

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During the opening reception for IDWeek 2019, I performed with my band the Affordable Rock ‘n’ Roll Act (ARRA). We were joined onstage by Pardis Sabeti (second from left), a computational geneticist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, and a talented rock ‘n’ roll singer. Here we perform Pardis’ song “Breathe In (Turkana Boy).” IDWeek is the joint annual meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA), the HIV Medical Association (HIVMA), and the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society (PIDS). The reception took place on October 2, 2019 at the Washington, D. C. Convention Center. Credit: Dawd Siraj, University of Wisconsin-Madison

New Grants Explore Benefits of Music on Health

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It’s not every day you get to perform with one of the finest voices on the planet. What an honor it was to join renowned opera singer Renée Fleming back in May for a rendition of “How Can I Keep from Singing?” at the NIH’s J. Edward Rall Cultural Lecture. Yet our duet was so much more. Between the song’s timeless message and Renée’s matchless soprano, the music filled me with a profound sense of joy, like being briefly lifted outside myself into a place of beauty and well-being. How does that happen?

Indeed, the benefits of music for human health and well-being have long been recognized. But biomedical science still has a quite limited understanding of music’s mechanisms of action in the brain, as well as its potential to ease symptoms of an array of disorders including Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In a major step toward using rigorous science to realize music’s potential for improving human health, NIH has just awarded $20 million over five years to support the first research projects of the Sound Health initiative. Launched a couple of years ago, Sound Health is a partnership between NIH and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in association with the National Endowment for the Arts.

With support from 10 NIH institutes and centers, the Sound Health awardees will, among other things, study how music might improve the motor skills of people with Parkinson’s disease. Previous research has shown that the beat of a metronome can steady the gait of someone with Parkinson’s disease, but more research is needed to determine exactly why that happens.

Other fascinating areas to be explored by the Sound Health awardees include:

• Assessing how active music interventions, often called music therapies, affect multiple biomarkers that correlate with improvement in health status. The aim is to provide a more holistic understanding of how such interventions serve to ease cancer-related stress and possibly even improve immune function.

• Investigating the effects of music on the developing brain of infants as they learn to talk. Such work may be especially helpful for youngsters at high risk for speech and language disorders.

• Studying synchronization of musical rhythm as part of social development. This research will look at how this process is disrupted in children with autism spectrum disorder, possibly suggesting ways of developing music-based interventions to improve communication.

• Examining the memory-related impacts of repeated exposures to a certain song or musical phrase, including those “earworms” that get “stuck” in our heads. This work might tell us more about how music sometimes serves as a cue for retrieving associated memories, even in people whose memory skills are impaired by Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive disorders.

• Tracing the developmental timeline—from childhood to adulthood—of how music shapes the brain. This will include studying how musical training at different points on that timeline may influence attention span, executive function, social/emotional functioning, and language skills.

We are fortunate to live in an exceptional time of discovery in neuroscience, as well as an extraordinary era of creativity in music. These Sound Health grants represent just the beginning of what I hope will be a long and productive partnership that brings these creative fields together. I am convinced that the power of science holds tremendous promise for improving the effectiveness of music-based interventions, and expanding their reach to improve the health and well-being of people suffering from a wide variety of conditions.

Links:

The Soprano and the Scientist: A Conversation About Music and Medicine, (National Public Radio, June 2, 2017)

NIH Workshop on Music and Health, January 2017

Sound Health (NIH)

NIH Support: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health; National Eye Institute; National Institute on Aging; National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism; National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders; National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of Nursing Research; Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research; Office of the Director


Singing for the Fences

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Credit: NIH

I’ve sung thousands of songs in my life, mostly in the forgiving company of family and friends. But, until a few years ago, I’d never dreamed that I would have the opportunity to do a solo performance of the Star-Spangled Banner in a major league ballpark.

When I first learned that the Washington Nationals had selected me to sing the national anthem before a home game with the New York Mets on May 24, 2016, I was thrilled. But then another response emerged: yes, that would be called fear. Not only would I be singing before my biggest audience ever, I would be taking on a song that’s extremely challenging for even the most accomplished performer.

The musician in me was particularly concerned about landing the anthem’s tricky high F note on “land of the free” without screeching or going flat. So, I tracked down a voice teacher who gave me a crash course about how to breathe properly, how to project, how to stay on pitch on a high note, and how to hit the national anthem out of the park. She suggested that a good way to train is to sing the entire song with each syllable replaced by “meow.” It sounds ridiculous, but it helped—try it sometime. And then I practiced, practiced, practiced. I think the preparation paid off, but watch the video to decide for yourself!

Three years later, the scientist in me remains fascinated by what goes on in the human brain when we listen to or perform music. The NIH has even partnered with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to launch the Sound Health initiative to explore the role of music in health. A great many questions remain to be answered. For example, what is it that makes us enjoy singers who stay on pitch and cringe when we hear someone go sharp or flat? Why do some intervals sound pleasant and others sound grating? And, to push that line of inquiry even further, why do we tune into the pitch of people’s voices when they are speaking to help figure out if they are happy, sad, angry, and so on?

To understand more about the neuroscience of pitch, a research team, led by Bevil Conway of NIH’s National Eye Institute, used functional MRI imaging to study activity in the region of the brain involved in processing sound (the auditory cortex), both in humans and in our evolutionary relative, the macaque monkey [1]. For purposes of the study, published recently in Nature Neuroscience, pitch was defined as the harmonic sounds that we hear when listening to music.

For humans and macaques, their auditory cortices lit up comparably in response to low- and high-frequency sound. But only humans responded selectively to harmonic tones, while the macaques reacted to toneless, white noise sounds spanning the same frequency range. Based on what they found in both humans and monkeys, the researchers suspect that macaques experience music and other sounds differently than humans. They also go on to suggest that the perception of pitch must have provided some kind of evolutionary advantage for our ancestors, and has therefore apparently shaped the basic organization of the human brain.

But enough about science and back to the ballpark! In front of 33,009 pitch-sensitive Homo sapiens, I managed to sing our national anthem without audible groaning from the crowd. What an honor it was! I pass along this memory to encourage each of you to test your own pitch this Independence Day. Let’s all celebrate the birth of our great nation. Have a happy Fourth!

Reference:

[1] Divergence in the functional organization of human and macaque auditory cortex revealed by fMRI responses to harmonic tones. Norman-Haignere SV, Kanwisher N, McDermott JH, Conway BR. Nat Neurosci. 2019 Jun 10. [Epub ahead of print]

Links:

Our brains appear uniquely tuned for musical pitch (National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke news release)

Sound Health: An NIH-Kennedy Center Partnership (NIH)

Bevil Conway (National Eye Institute/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke; National Eye Institute; National Institute of Mental Health


Playing With My Band

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ARRA
I got to spend the lunch hour playing with my band the Affordable Rock ‘n’ Roll Act (ARRA) to support Camp Fantastic. This program provides a series of week-long summer camps in Virginia and Maryland for kids with cancer. My band played under the canopy of the NIH Clinical Center’s South Lobby on June 11, 2019. Credit: NIH

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