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PEOPLE SING. ALL people, with surprisingly fewer differences between cultures than within any one culture. Science, November 22, 2019, describes this in “The World in a Song,” by W. Tecumseh and Tudor Popescu. Here are tidbits gleaned from their article and the research it describes.

An Early Recording Machine Prompted Research. Tecumseh and Popescu write, “It started with a bang in 1900, when after hearing a group of Thai musicians perform in Berlin, psychology professor Carl Stumpf decided to use his newly acquired phonograph to record them….” A Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv followed. By 1933, the archive had grown to 13,300 recordings.

Alas, the rise of Nazism forced the researchers, many of whom were Jewish, to flee Germany, and the archives were destroyed. For a long time afterward, the search for cultural universals in music was viewed with indifference. Science cites Alan Lomax and his “Cantometrics” project as a prominent exception.

Current Research. Samuel A. Mehr assembled a multidisciplinary team of researchers, their paper titled “Universality and Diversity in Human Song.” Areas of expertise among the 19 researchers are varied indeed: Psychology, Evolutionary Biology, Political Science, Music, Computational Perception, Linguistics, and Anthropology.

The researchers, Tecumseh and Popescu observe, “analyze vocally performed songs because the voice is the most fundamental and ever-present musical ‘instrument’ and song is a core component of human musicality.”

Uses of song: dance, lullaby, healing. The HRAF is the Human Relations Area Files, a Yale University-headquartered organization supporting and conducting cross-cultural research. This and the following image from “Universality and Diversity in Human Song,” Mehr, et al.

Four Song Types. Tecumseh and Popescu note, “the authors find that not only is music universal (in the sense of existing in all sampled cultures), but also that similar songs are used in similar contexts around the world.”

The Natural History of Song provided a recorded database of ethnographies, with four specific song types recurring in different cultures: lullabies, dance songs, love songs, and healing songs.

Some cross-cultural similarities were expected; others were more intriguing: “… dance songs are faster and more rhythmic than lullabies,” however, “ritual healing songs are less melodically variable than dance songs.”

Tonalities, though not identical, were identified as cross-cultural: “… the authors found that the principle of tonality (building melodies from a small set of related notes, built on the same tonic or ‘home’ pitch) exists in all cultures.”

Researchers identified three main dimensions of variance in the database: the degrees of formality, arousal, and religiosity.

The three dimensions of formality, arousal, and religiosity among cultures of song are compared graphically.

Other Research to Come. Mehr and his colleagues concentrated on vocal performances. Tecumseh and Popescu observe that “a massive playlist of instrumental and rhythmic music is still unexamined.”

There’s also environmental aspects: Tecumseh and Popescu note that mountain people in communities as varied as in Europe and in New Guinea have both evolved yodeling.

Professor Stumpf’s phonograph prompted the imagination. Today’s smartphones and the Internet can do the same. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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