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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Cultural Invariance in Musical Communication


Despite the variability of music worldwide, some types of human songs share basic acoustic characteristics. For example, dance songs tend to be loud and rhythmic, whereas lullabies tend to be quiet and melodious. Prior studies with western English-speaking participants have shown that this enables listeners to infer aspects of a singer’s behavior, despite being unfamiliar with the singer’s culture and language. Here, we test whether these intuitions are shared across a diversity of languages and human societies, with 5524 people from 49 industrialised countries comprising 28 languages, and 116 people in 3 small-scale societies with limited access to global media. Each made inferences about the behavioral contexts of 118 songs from 86 societies. Both groups reliably identified the behavioral functions of dance songs, lullabies, and healing songs. Linguistic and geographical proximity between listeners and singers was minimally predictive of accuracy, demonstrating a degree of cultural invariance in music perception.

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