Music has always carried an ideal of transculturality. We like to think that it is a language that frees itself from words and geographical concepts. But a new US study reveals that some types of songs are more universally recognizable than others.
To reach this conclusion, researchers from various American universities conducted an experiment with more than 5,000 people from 49 territories around the world. While the vast majority of these volunteers come from industrialized countries, around a hundred of them live in small, relatively isolated communities.
Love songs are not a universal language
This large panel had to listen to fourteen-second audio recordings from a bank of songs from a multitude of different cultures. Participants had to determine the probability that each excerpt corresponded to a dance tune, a lullaby, a healing song or a love song. Unlike most experimental psychology studies, which are carried out in a single language, this one was carried out in around thirty idioms.
Regardless of the language used in the survey, people from all cultures were easily able to distinguish dance tunes, lullabies, and even healing songs. They surprisingly had more difficulty recognizing love songs. In fact, only 12 of the 28 groups created by the research team managed to correctly identify them, while all groups were able to find the lullabies among all the audio recordings.
The mysteries of love
But why did the volunteers have so much difficulty recognizing love songs, when they exist in all languages? For Lidya Yurdum, one of the authors of the study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, this particularity is explained by the fact that these pieces do not only talk about… love. “Love songs are a particularly vague category that encompasses songs expressing happiness and attraction, but also sadness and jealousy“, she explained in a press release.
This is why they are more easily recognizable by connoisseurs than novices. Indeed, the researchers found that participants who had already listened to love songs in a language other than their own or from a different country had an easier time identifying them as such. But this phenomenon only concerns love songs.
The study authors noted that “the evaluations (of the participants on the songs) are largely precise, consistent with each other and cannot be explained by their linguistic or geographical proximity to the singer“, except when the pieces of which they listened to an extract speak of the impulses of the heart.
For Samuel Mehr, co-author of the study, this clearly shows that music is not a universal art, even if it goes beyond socio-cultural divisions and brings people together. “Music is deeply embedded in human social interaction“, he said in a press release.