Music is Universal After All, Harvard Study Finds

Music is universal, according to researchers at Harvard. They found that all cultures have music and that songs also have similarities wherever you go. Find out more.

I grew up in a musical family, and I’ve loved music for as long as I can remember. I’ve performed solo, in duets, trios, choruses and choirs. I’ve sung for one person and 500 people. Music means the world to me. Only one thing held me back from doing it professionally–talent!

Something that’s come up whenever I’ve collaborated with anyone musically is “are there rules?” I took a lot of music lessons, as did my parents, so I was brought up to believe that there most certainly are.  

On the other hand, a lot of top musicians are self-taught, and many of them are inclined to think that anything goes. They play by ear, and their motto is, “if it feels good, do it!”  


This week, the journal Science published a couple of articles on ethnomusicology. In the first one, researchers. led by Samuel Mehr from Harvard, reported on a study that shed a lot of light on what music is all about. The second is a perspective piece from the University of Vienna commenting on the Harvard study.

When people first started studying World Music in the 70s, diversity was the watchword. The idea that music is universal was frowned upon. As Leonard Bernstein put it, “”Universality is a big word — and a dangerous one.” Even so, this new large-scale study of music from cultures around the world tends to vindicate Longfellow’s 19th-century view that music is universal and has a strictly grammatical language.

Mehr and his team looked at written ethnographic records of musical behaviour from 315 societies. Then, they listened to field recordings of traditional music from 60 communities.


They found that every culture in the world makes music. That isn’t big news, but what’s more interesting is that the music people use in given situations has similar features. Dance music is always upbeat and rhythmic, lullabies are invariably soft and slow. It doesn’t matter what country or culture you’re in.

More importantly, tonality is the same in all societies. Some readers will challenge that. They’ll point out that different cultures have different scales and that we tend to impose the western scale on other musical genres.

That’s all true, but tonality exists in every musical style. Scales differ in their specific details. Still, all forms of music in all cultures have what Mehr calls a “signature of tonality” or at the very least, an “auditory analysis.” Songsmiths in all societies create melodies from a handful of related notes.  


They all work from a base tonic or “home” pitch. All musicians think that a note is either “in key” or “out of key” wherever you go. The harmonic principles on which the rules are based are pretty much the same globally.

People dance in every community on earth. Almost all songs have words, no matter what tribe composes them. All songs everywhere are structured around the same two principles – rhythm and melody. Most songs fall into four elementary genres – love, dance, lullabies and healing.

Music is universal in another way. It’s quite easy to guess the context for which a song is written, even if you know nothing about the social group from which it originated. The researchers had almost 30,000 people listen to songs at


The participants could all guess each type of song at rates well above random chance. Dance music was the easiest, and lullabies were a close second. These two genres were also the easiest to tell apart when compared A to B. Healing and love songs were trickier but still readily identifiable by most subjects.

The Harvard study also concluded hat music is universal for another reason. All the songs they studied have three dimensions. These are formality, arousal and religiosity. Songs that people think of as formal are part of ceremonies. Adults perform and listen to them. Formal audiences are sizeable, and the performers tend to use musical instruments. Informal songs can be sung or played by children and have smaller audiences.

Songs that are high on the arousal scale have large groups of singers and large audiences. Dance music includes lots of sources of arousal. People tend to sing songs with low arousal to themselves or in small groups. They don’t move you or make you feel like you’ve “gotta dance.”


Religious songs are similar to formal songs, but they have a priestly or shamanic context. They can induce feelings of possession, or they may be part of weddings, funerals or similar sacred ceremonies.  

Ceremonial songs that lack this kind of hymn-like element, like songs for non-spiritual celebrations, have a different feel. People in all cultures distinguish which of their songs are sacred and which are secular.

So, songs really don’t vary much from one ethnic group to another anywhere in the world. The fact is, songs differ more within groups than between them. Individual variation is more significant than group variation.


Professors W. Tecumseh Fitch and Tudor Popescu of the University of Vienna reflected on the implications of the Harvard study. They applaud the work of the Harvard researchers and support its overall conclusion that music is universal. On the other hand, they remark that there are still a lot of mysteries remaining.

They point out that even this large study has still left out thousands of cultures. The survey focuses only on singing and overlooks the vast body of rhythm and instrumental music found in most cultures. Genres outside of love, dance, lullaby and healing songs need to be looked at as well, according to Fitch and Popescu.

So, those of us in the “music is universal” camp can feel vindicated, but we shouldn’t get too smug about it. Fitch and Popescu go on to write, ” A deeper understanding of these, at both cognitive and neural levels, would offer rich new insights into the cognitive biology of our species.”

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn more:

University of Vienna
Universality and diversity in human song
The World in a Song
Hunter-Gatherer Culture and Storytellers
Friendly Faces Drove Human Evolution
Beauty and the Brain
Can a Contest Solve Human Consciousness?
Headline Stress Disorder and the Holidays

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