When I was a junior in college, I studied abroad and taught English to hundreds of kids in Rwanda for five weeks.

Those five weeks were the most exciting and influential weeks of my life—but they came with a fair amount of difficulties.

Among those difficulties: learning to communicate with my students who spoke exclusively in their native language, Kinyarwanda. Fortunately, we quickly discovered another way to understand and connect with one another: through the power of music.

At the end of each school day, we concluded our lessons with a jam session. The 15 teachers joined the 300 students in the school yard to sing and dance to the music on my colleague’s phone. We weren’t sure how the kids would respond at first, as they had no idea who these artists were or what they were saying—but we quickly realized that music is universal. My students immediately lit up whenever the upbeat music filled their ears and electrified their bones.

Recent research yields similar observations and findings: songs—such as those fit for dancing, meant to sooth a child, and used to express love—are universally understood and sound similar across different cultures. This study “Form and Function in Human Song,” which is published in Current Biology, says that it doesn’t matter what language a song is sung in or what culture it comes from… the purpose is served and understood by all.

“Despite the staggering diversity of music influenced by countless cultures and readily available to the modern listener, our shared human nature may underlie basic musical structures that transcend cultural differences,” explains co-first author Samuel Mehr from Harvard University. Manvir Singh, another co-first author, also from Harvard, adds: “We show that our shared psychology produces fundamental patterns in song that transcend our profound cultural differences. This suggests that our emotional and behavioral responses to aesthetic stimuli are remarkably similar across widely diverging populations.”

To reach these findings, Mehr and Singh’s research team asked 750 internet users in 60 different countries to first listen to short, 14-second clips of songs. The songs were chosen randomly from over 80 small-scale societies, which spanned a multitude of geographic areas, so as to represent a comprehensive sampling of human cultures. Then, after the participants finished listening, they were asked six questions designed to test their perceived function of each song. This six-point scale tested whether the listeners believed a given song was used 1) for dancing, 2) to calm a baby, 3) to heal an illness, 4) to express love, 5) to mourn the dead, or 6) to tell a story.

The participants listened to a total of over 26,000 clips of songs and gave more than 150,000 ratings. After analyzing all of the data, the researchers found that the subjects were able to make accurate inferences about song functions based on the music alone—even despite the participants’ unfamiliarity with the societies these songs were produced in, their brief duration, and immense diversity.

While all of the findings were of significant value, Mehr and Singh were particularly intrigued by the apparent relationship between lullabies and dance songs. “Not only were users best at identifying songs used for those functions, but their musical features seem to oppose each other in many ways,” Mehr explained. Lullabies were slower and simpler, while dance songs were typically faster and more rhythmically complex.

The researchers recognize the need for further testing and are in the midst of conducting experiments with participants from smaller scale societies—isolated individuals who have never heard music outside of their own culture’s. The team is also continuing to evaluate the music of different cultures, in order to better understand how their features may relate to function and if those features are universal.

Cell Press (2018, January 25). Music Really is a Universal Language. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved January 25, 2018 from http://neurosciencenews.com/music-universal-language-8370/

Mehr, S. A., Singh, M., York, H., Glowacki, L., & Krasnow, M. M. (2018, January 25). Form and Function in Human Song. Retrieved January 20, 2018 from http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(17)31675-5