What makes music universal
Illustration by Jorge Colombo
Music brings us together to show us how different we are.
by Kevin Berger
My friend Robert Burton, a neurologist and author, wanted to share a song with me last year, and sent me a link to an NPR Tiny Desk Concert. “It’s wonderful to see truly new and inspiring music,” he wrote. I clicked open the link to a band who appeared to have journeyed from their mountain village in Russia to busk for tourists in the city square. Three women wore long white wedding dresses, thick strands of bead necklaces, and Cossack hats that towered from their heads like minarets of black wool. They played, respectively, a cello, djembe drum, and floor tom drum. They were joined by an accordion player who could pass for a bearded hipster from Brooklyn.
The accordionist was the first to sing. A bray of syllables erupted from him like an exorcism. A steady drumbeat followed and then the women commanded the singing. Their vocals ranged from yodels to yips, whoops to whispers. At first turbulence reigned, as if the women were singing different songs at each other. But soon their voices blended into a melody that curled like a river. Their harmonies resonated, as if emanating from a deep hollow, and the melody rushed on. The song ended in a crescendo of wild abandon.
The song was called “Sho Z-Pod Dupa” by the band DakhaBrakha, which means give/take in their native Ukraine. Bob Boilen, who created the Tiny Desk Concerts, wrote DakhaBrakha “sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard, with strands of everything I’ve ever heard.” That’s a nice line, and I agree. I didn’t understand a single word of “Sho Z-Pod Dupa,” the vocal styles were otherworldly, and I related to every note. The other two songs in the Tiny Desk Concert were just as thrilling. The comments I sampled on YouTube, where the video has been viewed more than 2.5 million times, expressed a similar enthusiasm. “This is gold,” wrote one commenter. “Music is the universal language of all cultures.”
The debate over universality has raged like a battle of the bands among scientists.
DakhaBrakha is the perfect band to make the view ring true that people around the world speak the same musical language. It steeps its songs in traditional Ukrainian folk music but spices them with ingredients from around the world, such as raga drones from India, metrical drumming from Japan, and languid blues from America. DakhaBrakha call its music “ethno-chaos” but what makes it captivating is not the chaos but the way the global sounds amplify the Ukrainian ones. The quartet has released six albums and played concerts across the globe since 2007. Everywhere DakhaBrakha has played, fans have rhapsodized about the joy and pathos in their music. Humans have bodies that want to dance, sorrows that want company. It was a wonderful coincidence to learn about DakhaBrakha while I was immersed in the scientific debate about the universality of music.
I admit it’s not a new debate. More than 100 years ago, savvy musicologists were already singing a different tune about the widespread claim that all music could be reduced to pitches and intervals established by universal principles of math—integer ratios, to be exact—laid down by Pythagoras. The maverick thinkers showed that musicologists who boosted the theory that musical scales hewed to the ancient Greek’s math were tone deaf to music and instruments, like a Javanese gamelan, heard outside the concert halls of Europe.1 Mozart wasn’t the lodestar of the musical universe.
In the past two years, the debate over whether music is universal, or even whether that debate has merit, has raged like a battle of the bands among scientists. The stage has expanded from musicology to evolutionary biology to cultural anthropology. This summer, in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, more than 100 scholars sound off on evolution and universality of music. I love the din. The academic discord gives way to a symphony of insights into the meaning of music in our lives. It may be a cliché to say music is the sound of our shared humanity. But it feels transcendent to be in tune with a person from another culture. There’s something alchemical about knowing we share the same biology. Originate from the same place. Share the same desires. But there’s more to the story. My recent adventures in the fields of music research have instilled in me, deeper than ever before, the feeling that music is what makes us human. I also have a new appreciation of what universality in music really means.
A 2019 paper in Science, “Universality and Diversity in Human Song,”2 got me thinking anew. The paper concludes, “Music is in fact universal.” The conclusion is based on an impressive computational analysis of two cross-cultural datasets, one of recordings drawn from 86 societies, the other of ethnographers’ notes about musical behaviors from 60 societies around the world. The authors assert music is the product of “underlying psychological faculties” sparked by the basics of living. They write that four song types are heard in every society—love songs, lullabies, healing songs, dance songs. All cultures are animated by people who fall in love, have babies, seek spiritual health, and, if I may quote Teddy Pendergrass, get up, get down, get funky.
“We’ve shown you don’t need to be familiar with a particular culture to understand and enjoy its music,” Samuel Mehr, lead author on the paper, told me. Mehr is a research associate in the Department of Psychology at Harvard, where he is principal investigator at the Music Lab, a psychology laboratory studying music perception and music production. “You can find music meaningful and artistically interesting, and even glean reliable information, objective facts, from music made in different cultures. That’s really interesting socially because it shows there’s a common ground in this artistic product across cultures.”
Putting a universal label on music obscures its nuances.
The authors conducted an experiment in which nearly 30,000 Westerners listened on a website to a random generation of songs of the four types. The songs originated from places as varied as Micronesia and Western Africa, Southeastern Europe and Southern South America. At a rate better than chance, listeners correctly identified the song by type. Distinct musical features tipped them off. Listeners had little trouble telling dance songs from lullabies or healing songs, given their tempos and beats. But some differences were subtler. Love songs and lullabies, which sometimes may not be easy to tell apart, differed because love songs demonstrated a larger range of accents and pitches. Still, listeners sensed the distinctions.
Could elements of a Brahms lullaby, I asked Mehr, be heard in a Western African lullaby? “We haven’t tested Brahms directly,” he said. “But key features across different world regions reliably predict what makes a lullaby sound like a lullaby. So it wouldn’t be surprising if the same features that make a Brahms lullaby soothing are the features that make a lullaby from rural India, or Siberia, sound soothing.” In the paper, Mehr and coauthors explain that listeners’ abilities to identify unfamiliar songs by type suggests “that universal features of human psychology bias people to produce and enjoy songs with certain kinds of rhythmic or melodic patterning that naturally go with certain moods, desires, and themes.”
Some world music scholars viewed the paper with, well, horror. On social media, and in commentaries solicited by Mehr, they proclaimed the paper struck many sour notes, and the sourest of all is the term “universal.” “The idea that there is such a thing as musical universals (let alone that it should be studied) is deeply ethnocentric and Eurocentric,” wrote one scholar. “I prefer not to approach music in a universal way,” wrote another. “Every culture perceives facts and music in a different way depending on their cultural background.” At the inception of the study, one national grant reviewer told Mehr that his study was “carrying on the tradition of the Nazi party.” “He assumed we were going to be doing totally biased work and making grand claims about the superiority of one culture over another,” Mehr said. “Which is just ludicrous.”
Patricia Shehan Campbell, chair of music education at the University of Washington, put the controversy into perspective for me. Campbell is an ethnomusicologist who has studied indigenous music in communities around the world. She is co-editor of the recent book, Global Music Cultures. Campbell excitedly told me about her favorite recent discovery, music made by the Wagogo people in a village in central Tanzania. “I was in disbelief when I first heard a recording of it,” she said. “It was so beautiful.” She has traveled to Tanzania seven times in the past decade to hear and learn about it in person. The intoxicating music, played on percussion, two-string fiddle, thumb piano, and sometimes a zither, is accompanied by harmonious singing and dancing. “To be in that village and be a part of the singing and the dancing, which is so rhythmic and so clear, is an experience that can’t completely be rendered into words,” Campbell said.
Ethnomusicologists often have such powerful personal experiences. They live among the musicians, absorb their ways of life, and become immersed in music with its own cultural traditions. “Ethnomusicology is the development of human understanding through music in field settings, not labs,” Campbell said. “A healing relationship develops when you’re working with a family in a small community. You come to know these people and want to protect the nuances of their music, make sure it continues.” Putting a universal label on music obscures those nuances.
“The idea of music as a universal human activity is accepted,” Campbell continued. “But when we get down to detailing it, we find so much variety in its sonic elements, its social and individual uses.” Campbell agreed Mehr’s four song types could be heard in global cultures. But given the song types were derived from sound files and ethnographic notes, rather than being heard and studied in person, their value to musicologists was debatable, “at least from the perspective of those working humanistically rather than statistically,” she said.
Mehr was familiar with the criticism. “All I can say is there are trade-offs,” he said. “We’re going to lose some of the rich detail by doing quantitative analysis of culture. We’ll never be able to match the level of detail that you get when you do rich narrative ethnography. But at the same time, we can make generalizations to all societies in a rigorous fashion that corrects for bias in a way that rich narrative is never going to be able to do.”
The four song types, though, did seem to shrink the canvas of world music. Songs, after all, arose from more social and emotional conditions than loving, dancing, healing, and raising kids. And musical elements that defined one song type could be heard in another type. Also, a healing song might serve as a dance song. Mehr explained the four song types didn’t arise from a computational analysis of the datasets. Rather, he chose the four types based on “ideas in the psychology and evolutionary biology of music,” and looked for them in the datasets. “We didn’t have enough resources to study more than four kinds of music, and those were four kinds that were easy to find worldwide,” Mehr said.
I was intrigued by the four types and wanted to ask ethnomusicologists, experts in a specific region, if the types defined the songs in their part of the world. I had just the experts in mind.
After being enchanted by DakhaBrakha’s music, I read about its history and members. It made perfect sense, given the ethnic signature of their songs, that the three women in the band are trained ethnomusicologists; they studied at the University of Kiev. Nina Garenetska, the cellist, and one of the singers, told me she has traveled across Ukraine “to find the bearers of ancient, outdated ‘club’ folklore and record the material.” That material, also collected by other members of the band, in some cases from their relatives, constitute most of DakhaBrakha’s songs. Garenetska focused her studies on wedding music heard in a culturally distinct area of southwestern Ukraine.
“I went to a certain village many times, talked to the residents, was at a traditional wedding, studied the dialect, manner of performance, clothes, the wedding ceremony completely,” she said. “This is a big job that takes a lot of time to immerse in that space to study the tradition.” I should say my interview with Garenetska and Marko Halanevych of DakhaBrakha was done over email. I sent my questions in English and the band had them translated into Ukrainian so they could answer, and translated back into English for me.
I asked Garenetska if lullabies, love songs, dance songs, and healing songs, were major features of Ukrainian music. “Yes, of course, humanity has invented certain rituals that are associated with the seasons, so in all cultures, there are some similar genres,” she said. “Everyone gets married (wedding songs), everyone is born (lullabies), everyone dies (cries) and has ritual church songs. Our favorite category is the songs of the calendar cycle, namely vesnyanky (about spring), Kupala songs, mermaid songs, harvest songs, carols, Christmas carols, and of course wedding songs. They have the necessary rhythmic pulsation, which combines well with the rhythm of the drums, so it is easier to work with them.”
I told the band members that even though I didn’t understand the lyrics to “Sho Z-Pod Dupa,” the song was a joy. What was it actually about? “In one magical place, a spring flows from under the root of an oak tree, and there Ivan feeds his horse, and for some reason, the horse does not drink water,” Halanevych said. “So Ivan starts beating him. And the horse answers him, ‘Don’t beat me, I am still being useful to you.’”
I had to smile. When you added the lyrics, “Sho Z-Pod Dupa” was not exactly the universal language of all cultures. Did Garenetska think there was a universal quality in Ukrainian music? “It so happened that mostly all Ukrainian songs have a sad character,” she said. “These are lyrical, everyday songs about love and hard fate. People liked to sit and to get sad.”
I was beginning to question whether the conviction that music is universal was valuable. What seemed universal was not that music draws out a shared humanity, but that humans project their own meanings on it. We all share a happy delusion about oneness.
In a recent interview, Sona Jobarteh, a musician and composer from Gamba in West Africa, a virtuoso on the Kora, a multi-stringed lute with a gourd body, explained her music did not mean the same to all listeners. To the Mande people of Western Africa, she said, her music evoked “that sense of belonging, pride, identity, all that swell in you that just makes you feel so proud of where you come from when you hear it. That’s different to other people who listen to it and just feel, ‘It’s amazing. It touched me. It made me cry,’ you know, whatever it is.”
Music, which comes naturally to us, is not something we share with other primates.
Interestingly, the Jobarteh interview, in Greater Good Magazine, was sent to me by Patrick Savage, an ethnomusicologist, who is a leading scholar in what makes music universal. I had interviewed him earlier and we’d struck up a casual email exchange. But Jobarteh’s insight that listeners’ responses vary across cultures didn’t contradict his scholarship.
“I don’t like absolutists saying music is all universal or it’s all culturally relative,” Savage said. “I think about it as a continuum. It’s perfectly fine to recognize that, say, 70 percent of the things that we see in music of a given culture are shared with most other musics around the world, and another 30 percent is distinct to that culture. The fact that people like me spend years or lifetimes getting to understand a specific style of music and its nuances doesn’t mean we can’t use music to connect with people from other cultures, other places, even if we don’t understand everything about it. I see music as a tool for good, for connecting people, even if it’s not 100 percent universal.”
Savage has studied Japanese folk music, notably the style known as minyo. He is a proficient musician and sang a minyo song for me during our interview. Traditionally the song was sung by farmers as they led their cows across fields. If I didn’t know Savage was a Westerner, born in Wisconsin, I would have thought the singer behind the quavering vocals was Japanese. It was freaky cool. In his professional life, Savage is an associate professor in the Faculty of Environment and Information Studies at Keio University in Japan, where he runs the CompMusic Lab, applying computer science to musicology.
In a 2015 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Savage and colleagues analyzed a dataset of 304 global music recordings and isolated 32 specific musical features.3 (The dataset was not the same one that Mehr used for his 2019 paper.) The recordings included Western and non-Western music in manifold styles from nine global regions. Savage computed the musical features from various domains: pitch, rhythm, phrasing, instrumentation, performance, style, social context. He ranked the features by how consistently they appeared in music of all nine regions. Eighteen of the features were shared relatively widely.
I asked Savage to listen to “Sho Z-Pod Dupa” by DakhaBrakha to see where it fell on his universal scale. He said it contained 15 of the most universal features, such as “two-beat subdivisions,” which was the number one most common feature, “chest voice,” “discrete pitches,” “motivic patterns,” and “group performance.” Savage was intrigued by the song’s “yodel-like leaps,” which he said were rare in most other musics. “Another strikingly non-universal feature,” he said, “is the rare use of dissonant homophony—harmonizing in narrowing intervals—which is historically something that Western classical composers avoid, but here and in other regional styles, such as the Balkans and Papua New Guinea, is common. It’s one of the things that makes this recording sound so haunting and beautiful.”
Savage said the DakhaBrakha song exemplified a sentence in his 2015 paper and a key theme in his ongoing research. Music evolved, he wrote, to promote “group coordination and cohesion, as exemplified by the universal tendency to sing, play percussion instruments, and dance to simple, repetitive music in groups.” The idea that music has played a role in social bonding is a passage to the subculture of music research in evolutionary biology that lies beneath the world of notes. If music is truly universal, its creation and effects must be written somewhere in our biology. Music must have bestowed some adaptive trait on our ancestors in the competition of the jungle. Or not.
Currently, the song music may sing in human evolution is featured in Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Savage and Mehr are center stage. They each, with their respective colleagues, penned separate articles that have attracted 60 responses from a cast of scientists who study music. (The responses should be published in June. The journal’s editors kindly allowed me to read them before publication.)
Savage wrote that music is for social bonding like vision is for seeing.4 Performing music is a natural act that calls out to be shared. Singing, drumming, and dancing in harmony with others generates “positive feelings” and “mutual accomplishment.” As evolutionary biologists have long shown, language draws people together too. As does grooming. But music does it better. It can bind more people across wider areas. Social bonding, gained through music, yields evolutionary dividends that include “a larger group of potential allies, increased child rearing success, increased mating success, and better-functioning coalitions,” Savage wrote.
Music underscores how different people can be and still feel connected.
Drawing on a library of research in music and science, Savage took his thesis directly to the brain. Music, with its combinations of rhythms and pitches, activates mechanisms in the brain’s motor system, the neural directors of walking, talking, and, more to the point, dancing! Music sets up mental expectations of the next note and then meets or upends those expectations to deliver an emotional rush. As our brains groove along the continuum of anticipation and surprise, they stir chemicals that spark rewarding feelings of sociality, the same chemicals behind love. “There’s a world of evidence that when people move in synchrony, they are more willing to help each other to cooperate,” Savage said to me.
Having assimilated a lot of the same research, Mehr doesn’t buy the theory that music evolved for social bonding.5 “Evolution doesn’t really care how bonded you are with your partners,” he told me. “Evolution cares about reproductive success. And you can have reproductive success in the absence of social bonding. We tested that in the texts of anthropologists and ethnomusicologists writing about musical behavior. Do keywords associated with social bonding and group cohesion turn up reliably with music? And the answer was, not so much.”
In his Behavioral and Brain Sciences paper, Mehr stated music evolved as a “credible signal” in at least two contexts: territorial calls and infant care. “In mammals, loud auditory signals are frequently antagonistic, and territorial advertisements are a prime example,” Mehr wrote. Territorial calls signal an area is occupied. Music, notably loud singing and drumming, was “a means for groups to credibly show off their qualities to other groups.” Music also served parents well. “Human parents increase their offspring’s fitness by attending to them and protecting them from harm,” Mehr wrote. But parents are busy and attention is a limited resource. So to signal their care and attention, particularly when they had more than one child and had to focus on the youngest, our ancestral parents sang to their kids. The features of music, consistent with credible signaling, Mehr concluded, “give rise to a universal human psychology of music.”
Language draws people together too. As does grooming. But music does it better.
Scholars’ responses to Savage’s and Mehr’s theses varied, some in support, some not. For instance, Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, author of How the Mind Works and other popular books about cognitive science, wasn’t sold on either thesis. But he’s not sold that music meets any of the criteria of a Darwinian adaptation, like language or stereo vision. He has called music “auditory cheesecake,” a satisfying dessert, but not a nutritious meal needed for survival. He praised Mehr for “performing masterful necropsies on the bond-the-group and woo-the-ladies hypotheses,” but stopped short of endorsing his “signal” thesis. “If territorial and infant signaling were the most robust explanations for the evolution of music, we should see signs that those two functions are particularly robust, universal, archetypal, pervasive, and salient in the panoply of musical experience,” Pinker wrote. “But that is exactly what was not found in Mehr et al.’s (2019) mammoth cross-cultural survey.” Pinker in fact was one of the paper’s et al.’s. The four types of songs spotlighted in the paper, Pinker added, “were pretty much equally robust, distinctive, and universal.”
Reading the many responses to Savage’s and Mehr’s papers is an education in how scientists fill in the blanks of one another’s research to produce an amazing, comprehensive body of work—without arriving at a conclusion. The universality of music is wired into our biology. How could we deny it? But why? And, genetically, where?
Aniruddh Patel, a professor of psychology at Tufts University, author of the 2008 book, Music, Language and the Brain, and numerous papers on the evolution of music, is a respected scholar in the field. Both Savage and Mehr reference his work in their studies. Patel told me he has favored the social bonding theory for music in his past work, but wasn’t ready to stake his claim on it. When you surveyed the fields of science for how and why music evolved, he said, “I don’t think there’s overwhelming evidence for any single hypothesis, and I don’t think that many of them are mutually exclusive.”
What excites Patel, and guides his current research, is that music, which comes naturally to humans, is not something we share with other primates. That fact, he said, “is a clue that something has changed in our brains relative to other primates.” He added, “The most interesting thing about us as species is that we literally mixed biology and culture in our brain. We have an innate predisposition for music, there’s no question about that. But learning plays a huge role. If there has been a gene-culture coevolution for musicality, the larger message for the sciences is that the interplay of biology and culture has shaped important aspects of the human mind. If you want to wax philosophical, the idea that we have evolved to be musical suggests that the arts are baked into human nature.”
Intuitively, it sure seems music is inherent in our nature. But my research brought me an insight that felt like a revelation. Patel spoke about “musicality.” Savage also used the term in his Behavioral and Brain Sciences paper: “musicality encompasses the underlying biological capacities that allow us to perceive and produce music.” Music itself is what blossoms out of our biology into 1,000 sounds, shaped and colored by the world’s individual cultures. The debate over the universality of music can get too focused on what people have in common. Music around the world may share psychological and structural elements. But those commonalities are overtures to how diverse music can be. Our underlying musicality, you might say, allows us to appreciate music’s individuality. Ultimately the most human thing about music is it underscores how different people can be and still feel connected. Maybe that’s why art is baked into our nature. I wanted to ask the artist.
One of the most remarkable musicians who bridges cultures is Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov. Nearly all of his acclaimed works are steeped in the tango of his native land. But that’s just a starting point for music that expresses the world in countries of notes. In his album, Ayre, a song cycle; Le Pasion segun San Marcos, an opera; Yiddishbbuk, a chamber-music work; and most recently, Falling Out of Time, a song cycle based on a poetic novel by David Grossman about the death of his son; you hear the distinct sounds of Morocco, Mali, Israel, and America. They blend into musical figures like Picasso paintings.
Like the members of DakhaBrakha, Golijov told me how satisfying it was to experience concert audiences around the world being swept into his music. Rhythm was the thing. “Before music is emotion it’s motion,” he said. “I think all universal musics have rhythm. The attempt to negate rhythm just doesn’t resonate with our biology. Our blood circulates. We have two legs and we walk. We breathe in and out. We have a heartbeat.”
Golijov asked me about my research. I told him about the four basic song types that had come out of Mehr’s study. Oh, yes, of course, he said, love and healing and dance very much shaped his music. He was particularly intrigued by the fourth type, lullabies. He thought about it for a moment and then said that composing was like the first lullaby.
“A lullaby didn’t start as notes,” Golijov said. “It didn’t start from a mother saying, ‘OK, I’m going to go, ‘Do re mi.’ The mother starts humming and at some point that becomes a tune. The impulse to calm or love her baby becomes a note, a line, and evolves into whatever she repeats. We like repetition. We like to hear the same story every night. My music is the same. What do I want to say? Do I want to calm a baby? OK, I will start there. And, yes, at some point, I will arrive at precision—the precision of gesture, of speech, of rhythm, of color. So that original gesture that didn’t even have notes at the beginning becomes pure music. The origin doesn’t matter anymore.”
Kevin Berger is the editor of Nautilus.
1. Savage, P. Universals. The Sage International Encyclopedia of Music and Culture Sage Publications, Inc., Thousand Oaks, CA (2019).
2. Mehr, S.A., et al. Universality and diversity in human song. Science 366, eaax0868 (2019).
3. Savage, P.E., Brown, S., Sakai, E., & Currie, T. Statistical universals reveal the structures and functions of human music. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112, 8987-8992 (2015).
4. Savage, P.E., et al. Music as a coevolved system for social bonding. Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2020). Retrieved from DOI:10.1017/S0140525X20000333
5. Mehr, S.A., Krasnow, M.M., Bryant, G.A., & Hagen, E.H. Origins of music in credible signaling. Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2020). Retrieved from DOI:10.1017/S0140525X20000345