Music really is the ‘universal language of mankind’ according to a new study that found songs from different cultures exhibit universal patterns. 

In what is thought to be the most comprehensive scientific study of its kind, researchers examined hundreds of cultures to try and find out whether music really was a universal language.

Scientists from Harvard University built a discography of audio recordings of dance, healing, love and lullaby songs from 315 cultures as part of the study.

They found the different cultures – ranging from Celtic folk songs to African beats – all shared common musical themes.

In what is thought to be the most comprehensive scientific study of its kind, researchers examined hundreds of cultures to try and find out whether music really was a universal language (stock image)

In what is thought to be the most comprehensive scientific study of its kind, researchers examined hundreds of cultures to try and find out whether music really was a universal language (stock image)

 ‘As a graduate student, I was working on studies of infant music perception and I started to see all these studies that made claims about music being universal’, said lead author Samuel Mehr from Harvard Music Lab.

‘How is it that every paper on music starts out with this big claim but there’s never a citation backing that up? Now we can back that up.’

They looked at every society for which there was ethnographic information in an online database, 315 in all, and found mention of music in all of them. 

Scientists from Harvard University built a discography of audio recordings of dance, healing, love and lullaby songs from 315 cultures as part of the study (stock image)

Scientists from Harvard University built a discography of audio recordings of dance, healing, love and lullaby songs from 315 cultures as part of the study (stock image)

Over a five-year period, the team hunted down hundreds of recordings in libraries and private collections half a world away. 

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‘We are so used to being able to find any piece of music that we like on the internet but there are thousands and thousands of recordings buried in archives that are not accessible online’, said Mr Mehr.

‘We didn’t know what we would find. At one point we found an odd-looking call number, asked a Harvard librarian for help, and twenty minutes later she wheeled out a cart of about 20 cases of reel-to-reel recordings of traditional Celtic music.’

They later added more reel-to-reels, vinyl, cassette tapes, CDs and digital recordings from anthropologists around the world to their growing collection of native songs. 

They looked at every society for which there was ethnographic information in an online database, 315 in all, and found mention of music in all of them (stock image)

They looked at every society for which there was ethnographic information in an online database, 315 in all, and found mention of music in all of them (stock image)

One big answer came out of their study, which involved collaboration with scientists and musicians around the world.

Music pervades social life in similar ways all around the globe. 

The researchers found that in all societies music is associated with infant care, healing, dance and love, mourning, warfare, processions and rituals.

They discovered that songs that share behavioural functions tend to have similar musical features. 

Graduate student Manvir Singh said: ‘Lullabies and dance songs are ubiquitous and they are also highly stereotyped.

‘For me, dance songs and lullabies tend to define the space of what music can be. They do very different things with features that are almost the opposite of each other’.

The team will now look ahead to unlocking the governing rules of ‘musical grammar’, an idea that all humans have the capacity to make music.

‘In music theory, tonality is often assumed to be an invention of Western music, but our data raises the controversial possibility that this could be a universal feature of music.

‘That raises pressing questions about structure that underlies music everywhere – and whether and how our minds are designed to make music.’

They found the different cultures - ranging from Celtic folk songs to African beats - all shared common musical themes (stock image)

They found the different cultures – ranging from Celtic folk songs to African beats – all shared common musical themes (stock image)

The phrase ‘music is the universal language of all mankind’ was first coined nearly 200 years ago, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 

Now it seems scientists have proof for the assertion made by the American poet and educator who was one of the most popular writers of his time.

‘In music theory, tonality is often assumed to be an invention of Western music, but our data raise the controversial possibility that this could be a universal feature of music,’ Mr Mehr said. 

‘That raises pressing questions about structure that underlies music everywhere — and whether and how our minds are designed to make music.’ 

The findings were published in the journal Science.

HOW DOES MUSIC IMPROVE YOUR MOOD?

Listening to melancholy music can improve a person’s emotional well-being in times of loneliness and distress.  

Sad songs, in particular, can stir up a mixture of complex and ‘partially positive’ emotions, including nostalgia, peacefulness, tenderness, transcendence and wonder. 

Upbeat music that you’re not consciously aware that you’re listening to typically have no affect on how you feel.

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But actively seeking out happiness through music can sometimes improve your health and relationship satisfaction. 

Research has also found that listening to fast-paced, energetic music can increase the perceived spiciness of food by up to ten per cent.  



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