Universality and diversity in human song


What is universal about music, 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. The ethnographic corpus reveals that music appears in every society observed; that music varies along three dimensions (formality, arousal, religiosity), more within societies than across them; and that music is associated with certain behavioral contexts such as infant care, healing, dance, and love. The discography, analyzed through machine summaries, amateur and expert listener ratings, and manual transcriptions, revealed that acoustic features of songs predict their primary behavioral context; that tonality is widespread, perhaps universal; that music varies in rhythmic and melodic complexity; and that melodies and rhythms found worldwide follow power laws.

Science, 366(6468)
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