Patrick E. Savage, Steven Brown, Emi Sakai, and Thomas E. Currie, Statistical universals reveal the structures and functions of human music, PNAS, July 21, 2015, vol. 112, no. 29, 8987-8992.
Significance: Which features of music are universal and which are culture-specific? Why? These questions are important for understand- ing why humans make music but have rarely been scientifically tested. We used musical classification techniques and statistical tools to analyze a global set of 304 music recordings, finding no absolute universals but dozens of statistical universals. These include not only commonly cited features related to pitch and rhythm but also domains such as social context and interrelationships between musical features. We speculate that group coordination is the common aspect unifying the cross-cultural structural regularities of human music, with implications for the study of music evolution.
Abstract: Music has been called “the universal language of mankind.” Although contemporary theories of music evolution often invoke various musical universals, the existence of such universals has been disputed for decades and has never been empirically demonstrated. Here we combine a music-classification scheme with statistical analyses, including phylogenetic comparative methods, to examine a well-sampled global set of 304 music recordings. Our analyses reveal no absolute universals but strong support for many statistical universals that are consistent across all nine geographic regions sampled. These universals include 18 musical features that are common individually as well as a network of 10 features that are commonly associated with one another. They span not only features related to pitch and rhythm that are often cited as putative universals but also rarely cited domains including performance style and social context. These cross-cultural structural regularities of human music may relate to roles in facilitating group coordination and cohesion, as exemplified by the universal tendency to sing, play percussion instruments, and dance to simple, repetitive music in groups. Our findings highlight the need for scientists studying music evolution to expand the range of musical cultures and musical features under consideration. The statistical universals we identified represent important candidates for future investigation.