Music Universals and Science

Michael Stuart Kelly

Recommended Posts

Music Universals and Science

Sometimes I come across something that validates my youth and leaves me seething with anger.

I just came across one such thing.

Here is the press-release-based article (by Brooks Hays at UPI): 

Music, songs from diverse cultures feature universal commonalities


... new analysis suggests universality can be found in song, as music produced by different cultures features similar aural elements -- enough that the moods, meanings and purposes of songs from one culture can be understood by listeners from another.

. . .

Scientists determined that songs with the same function sound similar regardless of the culture from which they originate.

Here is the teaser article by W. Tecumseh Fitch and Tudor Popescu in Science, where the study was published:

The world in a song


The new work by Mehr et al. analyzes songs performed by a carefully selected sample of human cultures spanning the planet, together with detailed ethnographic descriptions of the cultures and the song contexts. They 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.

. . .

Employing the method of Bayesian principal components, they find that three main dimensions—formality, arousal, and religiosity—account for considerable variance in these contexts. They then analyzed recordings of four specific song types—lullabies, dance songs, love songs, and healing songs, selected on the basis of previous research—finding many detailed examples of acoustic regularities.

. . .

These broad, universal acoustic patterns are easily identified by naïve Western listeners, who successfully categorized the song type of sound recordings.

. . .

Crucially, variability of song context within cultures is much greater than that between cultures, indicating that despite the diversity of music, humans use similar music in similar ways around the world. Additionally, the authors found that the principle of tonality (building melodies from a small set of related notes, built upon a base tonic or “home” pitch) exists in all cultures. This suggests the existence of a universal cognitive bias to generate melodies based on categorical building blocks.

And here is the study itself.

Universality and diversity in human song

Before anyone thinks this is a one-more-theory-presented-as-science thing, here are the authors of the study--all being scientists and/or academics: Samuel A. Mehr, Manvir Singh, Dean Knox, Daniel M. Ketter, Daniel Pickens-Jones, S. Atwood, Christopher Lucas, Nori Jacoby, Alena A. Egner, Erin J. Hopkins, Rhea M. Howard, Joshua K. Hartshorne, Mariela V. Jennings, Jan Simson, Constance M. Bainbridge, Steven Pinker, Timothy J. O’Donnell, Max M. Krasnow, Luke Glowacki.

I don't know anything about most of these folks, but I do know about Steven Pinker because I have read several of his books. He's top quality in the science/academic field.

I now have one more thing on my plate to study.

But what leaves me furious is the sheer amount of taunting and ridicule I suffered in college for espousing the fundamentals of this study (not exactly, of course, but as the direction I wanted to go in). I was a music composition major. Along with the taunting (one composition teacher even said I wrote "Gypsy fiddler" music--and man, did that piss me off back then :) ), I was badgered and intimidated into learning the dodecaphonic system of Schoenberg and other avant-garde techniques. All of it sounded like shit, too. Try as I may, I couldn't learn to like the stuff I wrote, not because of any lack of talent, but because the systems I had to use were anti-human-brain. 

I was so frustrated, I was going to write a work about musical epistemology to force myself to study the fundamentals and prove this crap was crap and good music was good music--and why. I had recently discovered Rand and, of course, scorched earth became my style. :) 

But for practical matters, meaning money, I concentrated on the trombone because I was constantly working at gigs. And when I took an audition for a contract with the São Paulo State Symphony and was offered the principal trombone seat, I left the US just to get away from the madness, especially this avant-garde crap. (The Vietnam War was still going and that didn't help my disgust.)

Oddly enough, when I started conducting down in Brazil, I became a bit famous for conducting this crappy modern music and pulling it off well. That's because I not only knew how and why it was composed, and I made sure those bases were covered correctly in the concert hall, but I went for dramatic effects in the compositions, sometimes even imposing dramatic gestures that were not in the score. In other words, I polished turds and made them shine. At least the composers and their political allies liked me and they opened lots of doors for me back then. They said I understood their music better than any other conductor. And I was doing it masochistically in a "give 'em the crap they want to eat, no, give them even more" frame of mind. How's that for irony?

That's why I went off into producing pop music and songwriting, but that's another story..

Anyway, science is finally catching up with common sense about music. It's good to know--at a science level--that I was right back then and the people instructing me were wrong--maliciously wrong. To use a Randian metaphor, I was the intended man in the shape of a pot of a comprachico education system. It's a good thing I'm hardheaded and did not turn out like a pot. Still, being forced into a pot hurts like hell.

That was a long time ago, but I'm still pissed. I can't get those years back from those assholes who were charged with teaching me how to compose. (On the tonal side, I did learn some useful things, like how to write figured bass in the style of Bach if I ever time travel to the 1600-1700's and need to offer my services to church organists. Bah...) 

Anyway, I will go through this study and comment when I get the time. I am no longer a professional musician and haven't written any music for years, although recently I have been getting the itch again. So I am intensely interested at several levels.

If this topic interests you, look into the study and let me know what you think. I would love to know.


  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I don't understand the studies, were you mad you had to learn compositional styles?  I hated all the rote-memorization music courses I've taken, in my youth i would play my own written parts secretly in the orchestra.  I love my own music and i believe music is universal, a response to physiological responses and this goes DEEP.  I used to judge my songs on popular opinion of the BIRDS outside my window, whether they would go bonkers.  And the more ethical a song, the more they liked it.  My last bandmate I broke off ALL contact with because he claimed music was NOT objective.  I knew only then that the response in your mind IS.  and he listens to my music today! but I have given up music for my more preferable purposes, despite the fact I have garnered the attention of a forbes list producer/musician.  I've even written songs with birds.  You can probably watch the body of a person and decide if music is for one to the other

Link to comment
Share on other sites

12 hours ago, atlashead said:

... were you mad you had to learn compositional styles?


No. I was mad because I was constantly ridiculed for correctly identifying what music was and suffered enormous pressures to compose according to systems that had nothing to do with music but were presented as if they did--and were progress at that. And this, when I was trying to learn my art.

I was a lot more gullible than Roark because I actually thought there was something I was missing and tried to do it right. I also become convinced there was something wrong with me because I couldn't see the stuff they were teaching me had anything to do with what made me want to compose or even listen to music. It was a con and I was the mark. And I thought it was all my fault.

But once I learned the con, I left school. Pissed like I had never been pissed before.

If you don't know what dodecaphonic music is, here's a brief description. You take the twelve chromatic notes of a normal scale, arrange them in any order you wish, then, within a composition, once you use a note, you can only use it again after all the other eleven notes have sounded in the original order. And you do that over and over and over. For variety (and to fudge on the rule), you can run the order backwards, run it upside-down, or run it backwards and upside-down. But the same condition of using all eleven other notes in the same order before being able to use a note again applies to each such variation.

It sounds like shit when I describe it. It sounds even worse when you hear it. What's worse, twelve-tone composers fudge all the time so they can use notes out of order. Why? To make it sound less like the shit it is.


That wasn't the only system. Ever hear of John Cage's 4'33"? A pianist sits in front of a piano without playing for 4'33" (you can see a performance on YouTube here and that sucker has over 5 million views). This was considered the ultimate in profound by the people who taught me back then. It was breaching the confines of the music universe and letting the ambiance noise be part of the musical experience, sort of like breaking the fourth wall for drama and screen writing. At least, that's what they said.

Ironically, the best example I came across this breaching approach was in Brazil by a composer I knew, Gilberto Mendes. He wrote a duet for soprano and weight lifter (I can't remember the title, it was probably something clever like "Duo Para Soprano e Halterofilísta," or "Duet for for Soprano and Weight Lifter" :) ). Basically a soprano comes out on stage and sings sections of different operatic arias while a weight lifter hunk comes out with nothing on but spandex shorts and does his reps with different weights. This goes on for about 20 minutes. He never notices her, but she gushes over him and tries to get the arias (and some warm-up scales and arpeggios) in line with the up and down of the weights. Musically, it was nothing, but it was good for a few laughs. Especially when the soprano did sections of arias of famous death scenes.

As to your bird thing, Olivier Messiaen beat you to it. Birds were his thing of things for music. One of the big occasions at Boston University (back when I studied there) was when he came to give a lecture. I went to that lecture, which was given in French without a translator, and I didn't understand a goddam thing except birds had something to do with it. Then I read a translated transcription and understood even less. His music is not all bad, though. Some of the early stuff sounds like a cross between Debussy and cool jazz. The later stuff, at least the stuff I've heard, is little more than meandering mood music that alternates between long slow passages that go nowhere and jumpy quick passages that always seem to start and never get going. There are parts that are OK and other parts that sound like shit. Great titles, though ("Quartet for the End of Time" and so on). Music-wise, I consider what I've heard of his pretentious crap for pretentious snobs and nothing for the human soul. I don't even think birds like his stuff.


If any of this (and extrapolations) is the kind of music (or bogus music) that turns you on, I will not argue. But it has nothing--any longer--to do with me. 


Link to comment
Share on other sites

My fella introduced me to a trio called The Trouble Notes.  He took me to see them at a small venue in New Orleans.  I wasn't expecting the musicians themselves to be greeting people at the door, so after talking to the violinist for a minute, it struck me who he was and my hillbilly self blurted out, "Oh my gosh, you're the fiddler!"  (He's a classically trained former concert violinist and child prodigy.)  He didn't seem offended, but my fella was mortified.  What followed was a transcendent experience up close and personal in this tiny venue with brilliant music.

When you say gypsy fiddler music, this is what I hear, and you can play that for me all day long.

  • Like 1
Link to comment
Share on other sites

11 hours ago, dldelancey said:

My fella introduced me to a trio called The Trouble Notes


I loved it.

The fiddle guy even used some motives that I often used back in my composing days. One in particular is a melodic kernel (like "C - E - F#"). He used it in the middle of his jamming whereas I often used it at the end of a soulful melody as it always gives the impression of an emotional unanswered question.

Really cool. I like this group. I am going to listen to more of them. I see how they can easily get one into a trance (a transcendent trance :) ).

That was a funny looking guitar without the big sound hole in it, but I liked the less resonance and more percussiveness in the kind of music they played. Also, I have not seen a professional wood crate player up to now, but the guy killed it. :) (I have seen matchboxes used in Brazil as persuasion instruments, those guys are amazing, and of course, plenty of washboards with thimbles in old time down home bands.)

Thank you.

btw - Any violinist worth his or her salt wears the badge of fiddler with honor. I used to conduct symphony orchestras and never once heard a complaint when they were called that. :) 

Apropos, way back when, I went through a book during my studies called Psychology for Conductors or something like that. It said to be patient with violinists and violists because they often have chronic neck and back pain from the posture of holding their instrument with their chins over long stretches. This ache can make them irritable and impatient, and it can cause them to be easily demoralized when a conductor uses an attitude of too much authority or disagreeableness during rehearsals. One needs to be extra inspiring to get them excited, which is the state I always tried to get my musicians in.


Link to comment
Share on other sites

well for me, I was stuck writing music because no moment is to waste on the day I met my best friend (to this day) 23 years ago.  I was going to be a paleontologist.  But on that day I decided I was going to choose between art & physics because physics used materials and i couldn't bind him to life I chose art.  I didn't choose music as such but as we waited I composed a tune.  I composed it to be musically good and through that I realized it was the INTENTION that determined the sound.  He & I are very different and it shows in our music taste but the GREAT songs we AGREE are GREAT.
and what's even more astonishing is we can choose music the other would like

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 3 weeks later...
  • 3 months later...

I was playing computer scrabble and I noticed rai was a word. It reminds me of rap or something from an Indiana Jones movie. But boy is it monotonous. Peter

Check out the following.

Algerian Rai: Music of Resistance. Rai, the folk music that put Algeria on the international map, originated in 1930 in a small Bedouin Shepherds village in the city of Oran. Rai is a musical genre mixed with Spanish, French, African and Arab music that is listened to by the Algerian population.

Algerian Rai music - Cheb Hichem _Yahyou Khayasha nta3 spania

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now