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Move over, math. The universal language is world music.
A new study finds that societies use the same acoustic features for the same types of songs, suggesting universal cognitive mechanisms underpinning world music.
- Every culture in the world creates music, though stylistic diversity hides their core similarities.
- A new study in Science finds that cultures use identifiable acoustic features in the same types of songs and that tonality exists worldwide.
- Music is one of hundreds of human universals ethnographers have discovered.
World music's most striking feature is its diversity. A quick survey of modern musical styles demonstrates this variation, as there seems little in commonality between the melodious flow of jazz, the tonal jolts of dubstep, and the earthy twang of country folk.
If we expand our survey beyond contemporary genres, this diversity becomes even more pronounced.
Katajjaq, or Inuit throat singing, expresses playfulness in strong, throaty expressions. Japan's nogaku punctuates haunting bamboo flutes with the stiff punctuation of percussion. South of Japan, the Australian Aborigines also used winds and percussions, yet their didgeridoos and clapsticks birthed a distinct sound. And the staid echoes of medieval Gregorian chant could hardly be confused for a rousing track of thrash metal.
Despite music's far reach across cultures and time, its diversity has led many ethnomusicologists to proclaim the idea of a universal "human musicality" to be groundless or even offensive. But a new study published in Science has found evidence that the world's musics share important acoustic commonalities, despite their apparent differences.
The universal qualities of world music
The researchers focused on vocal songs because it is the most ubiquitous instrument available to world music.
Samuel Mehr, who studies the psychology of music at Harvard, led a team of researchers in studying musical patterns across cultures. In their "natural history of song," the team collected an ethnography and discography of songs from human cultures across the world.
The data set only looked at vocal performances because vocal cords are a ubiquitous musical instrument. They focused on four distinct song types: lullabies, dance songs, healing songs, and love songs. These songs were analyzed through transcriptions, machine summaries, and amateur and expert listeners in an online experiment.
The researchers' analysis of the data revealed that these four music types shared consistent features and that cultures used in similar contexts. Some of the similarities were what you'd expect. Dance songs were faster and had an upbeat tempo when compared to soothing and slow lullabies.
But the researchers found subtler distinctions also shared across cultures. For example, love songs have a larger size of pitch range and metrical accents than lullabies. Dance songs were more melodically variable than healing songs, while healing songs used fewer notes that were more closely spaced than love songs.
"Taken together, these new findings indicate that some basic but fundamental principles mapping musical styles onto societal functions and emotional registers exist and can be scientifically analyzed," stated cognitive biologists W. Tecumseh Fitch and Tudor Popescu (University of Vienna), who wrote the study's perspective piece.
The study's online experiment asked more than 29,000 participants to listen to songs and categorize them into one of the four types. The researchers precluded offering information that either explicitly or implicitly identified the song's context. They wanted listeners to guess based on the song's acoustic features alone.
The listeners, amateurs and experts, guessed the correct song type about 42 percent of the time, a success rate that stands well above the 25 percent odds of pure chance. The researchers argue that this shows "that the acoustic properties of a song performance reflect its behavioral context in ways that span human cultures."
Far from tone deaf
Of course, we all know that music varies, and the study did find three dimensions that explained the variability across the four song types: formality, arousal, and religiosity. For example, dance songs were found to be high in formality, high in arousal, but low in religiosity. Meanwhile, healing songs were high in all three dimensions, and lullabies were the lowest.
"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," write Fitch and Popescu.
In addition, all of the studied songs showed tonality—that is, they built melodies by composing from a fixed set of tones.
To test this, the researchers asked 30 musical experts to listen to sample of songs and state whether they heard at least one tonal center. Of the 118 songs listened to, 113 were rated as tonal by 90 percent of the experts. These results suggest the widespread, perhaps universal, nature of tonality.
With all that said, the writers still recognize avenues of future research. They point out that the current database doesn't explain the variance in societal contexts and acoustic variables. The vocal-only nature of the data also leaves an immense library of instrumental and rhythmic music unexplored. And as with any research into human universals, the database cannot hope to be comprehensive enough to support evidence from every human culture. Additional cultures and musical styles remain to be investigated.
However, Fitch and Popescu note, Mehr and his colleagues have provided a deeper understanding of a potential universal cognitive mechanism for music and a blueprint for future empirical tests.
"Today, with smartphones and the internet, we can easily imagine a comprehensive future database, including recordings of all cultures and styles, richly annotated with video and text, being assembled in a citizen science initiative," they write.
The universals that bind us
Music is hardly the only human universal. Scientists have identified hundreds of cultural, societal, behavioral, and mental universals that have been identified among all known peoples, contemporary and historic. These include language, tool usage, death rituals, and, of course, music.
Study of fossils has discovered that Homo heidelbergensis, a common ancestor of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, had the ability to control pitch (or "sing") at least a million years ago. But having the ability in tandem with the cognitive capabilities to control it is another matter. Humans are the only Homo genus we know has met all the musical requirements, and we can't be certain when these coalesced in our evolutionary history.
Additionally, archaeologists have found bone pipes made from swan and vulture bones dating back between 39,000 and 43,000 years ago. However, these were likely the result of a long creative process, likely preceded by instruments crafted by grasses, reeds, and wood, materials that are not as well preserved in the fossil record.
This makes it difficult to pinpoint when music entered our evolutionary history and therefore to pinpoint its evolutionary advantage. According to Jeremy Montagu, former musicologist at Oxford, one proposal is social bonding:
[M]usic is not only cohesive on society but almost adhesive. Music leads to bonding, bonding between mother and child, bonding between groups who are working together or who are together for any other purpose. Work songs are a cohesive element in most pre-industrial societies, for they mean that everyone of the group moves together and thus increases the force of their work. […] Dancing or singing together before a hunt or warfare binds the participants into a cohesive group, and we all know how walking or marching in step helps to keep one going.
According to anthropologist Donald Brown, despite human universals' widespread nature, they result from relatively few processes or conditions. These include diffusion of ancient cultural traits or cultures meeting the demands of our physical reality. They can also stem from the operation and structure of the human mind, and therefore can result from said mind's evolution.
Which is it for music? We don't yet know.
The Science study authors suggest a picture emerging that music is an evolutionary adaptation—though, whether music is its own specific adaptation or a byproduct of other adaptations remains even more unclear. However, Montagu suggests a more cultural origin when he writes: "Each culture develops the tuning system that best suits its ideas of musicality. It is up to the cognitive scientists to determine why this should be so, but they have to admit, if they are willing to listen to the exotic musics of the world, that these differences exist."
Further complicating the matter is the fact that while every human can appreciate music, not everyone can create it or even desires to (unlike language or other innate universals).
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Some mysteries take generations to unfold.
- In 1959, a group of nine Russian hikers was killed in an overnight incident in the Ural Mountains.
- Conspiracies about their deaths have flourished ever since, including alien invasion, an irate Yeti, and angry tribesmen.
- Researchers have finally confirmed that their deaths were due to a slab avalanche caused by intense winds.
In February 1959, a group of nine hikers crossed through Russia's Ural Mountains as part of a skiing expedition. The experienced trekkers, all employed at the Ural Polytechnical Institute, were led by Igor Dyatlov. On the evening of February 1, all nine appear to have fled their tents into the Arctic temperatures, for which they were unprepared. None survived.
Six of the members died of hypothermia; three suffered from physical trauma. Some members were missing body parts—a tongue here, a few eyes there, a pair of eyebrows for good measure. According to reports, no hiker appears to have struggled or panicked. They were likely too quickly overtaken by the hostile environment in Western Russia.
All the members were young, mostly in their early twenties; one member, Semyon Zolotaryov, was 38. Good health didn't matter. Given the uncertain circumstances—what made them flee into the bitter cold?—the incident known as Dyatlov Pass has long been the type of Area 51-conspiracy theory that some people love to speculate about. A vicious animal attack? Infrasound-induced panic? Was the Soviet military involved? Maybe it was the katabatic winds that did them in. Local tribesmen might not have liked the intrusion.
Or perhaps it was aliens. Or a Yeti. Have we talked about Yeti aliens yet?
These theories and more have been floated for decades.
a: Last picture of the Dyatlov group taken before sunset, while making a cut in the slope to install the tent. b: Broken tent covered with snow as it was found during the search 26 days after the event.
Photographs courtesy of the Dyatlov Memorial Foundation.
Finally, a new study, published in the Nature journal Communications Earth & Environment, has put the case to rest: it was a slab avalanche.
This theory isn't exactly new either. Researchers have long been skeptical about the avalanche notion, however, due to the grade of the hill. Slab avalanches don't need a steep slope to get started. Crown or flank fractures can quickly release as little as a few centimeters of earth (or snow) sliding down a hill (or mountain).
As researchers Johan Gaume (Switzerland's WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF) and Alexander Puzrin (Switzerland's Institute for Geotechnical Engineering) write, it was "a combination of irregular topography, a cut made in the slope to install the tent and the subsequent deposition of snow induced by strong katabatic winds contributed after a suitable time to the slab release, which caused severe non-fatal injuries, in agreement with the autopsy results."
Conspiracy theories abound when evidence is lacking. Twenty-six days after the incident, a team showed up to investigate. They didn't find any obvious sounds of an avalanche; the slope angle was below 30 degrees, ruling out (to them) the possibility of a landslide. Plus, the head injuries suffered were not typical of avalanche victims. Inject doubt and crazy theories will flourish.
Configuration of the Dyatlov tent installed on a flat surface after making a cut in the slope below a small shoulder. Snow deposition above the tent is due to wind transport of snow (with deposition flux Q).
Photo courtesy of Communications Earth & Environment.
Add to this Russian leadership's longstanding battle with (or against) the truth. In 2015 the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation decided to reopen this case. Four years later the agency concluded it was indeed a snow avalanche—an assertion immediately challenged within the Russian Federation. The oppositional agency eventually agreed as well. The problem was neither really provided conclusive scientific evidence.
Gaume and Puzrin went to work. They provided four critical factors that confirmed the avalanche:
- The location of the tent under a shoulder in a locally steeper slope to protect them from the wind
- A buried weak snow layer parallel to the locally steeper terrain, which resulted in an upward-thinning snow slab
- The cut in the snow slab made by the group to install the tent
- Strong katabatic winds that led to progressive snow accumulation due to the local topography (shoulder above the tent) causing a delayed failure
Case closed? It appears so, though don't expect conspiracy theories to abate. Good research takes time—sometimes generations. We're constantly learning about our environment and then applying those lessons to the past. While we can't expect every skeptic to accept the findings, from the looks of this study, a 62-year-old case is now closed.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
New data have set the particle physics community abuzz.
- The first question ever asked in Western philosophy, "What's the world made of?" continues to inspire high energy physicists.
- New experimental results probing the magnetic properties of the muon, a heavier cousin of the electron, seem to indicate that new particles of nature may exist, potentially shedding light on the mystery of dark matter.
- The results are a celebration of the human spirit and our insatiable curiosity to understand the world and our place in it.
If brute force doesn't work, then look into the peculiarities of nothingness. This may sound like a Zen koan, but it's actually the strategy that particle physicists are using to find physics beyond the Standard Model, the current registry of all known particles and their interactions. Instead of the usual colliding experiments that smash particles against one another, exciting new results indicate that new vistas into exotic kinds of matter may be glimpsed by carefully measuring the properties of the quantum vacuum. There's a lot to unpack here, so let's go piecemeal.
It is fitting that the first question asked in Western philosophy concerned the material composition of the world. Writing around 350 BCE, Aristotle credited Thales of Miletus (circa 600 BCE) with the honor of being the first Western philosopher when he asked the question, "What is the world made of?" What modern high energy physicists do, albeit with very different methodology and equipment, is to follow along the same philosophical tradition of trying to answer this question, assuming that there are indivisible bricks of matter called elementary particles.
Deficits in the Standard Model
Jumping thousands of years of spectacular discoveries, we now have a very neat understanding of the material composition of the world at the subatomic level: a total of 12 particles and the Higgs boson. The 12 particles of matter are divided into two groups, six leptons and six quarks. The six quarks comprise all particles that interact via the strong nuclear force, like protons and neutrons. The leptons include the familiar electron and its two heavier cousins, the muon and the tau. The muon is the star of the new experiments.
For all its glory, the Standard Model described above is incomplete. The goal of fundamental physics is to answer the most questions with the least number of assumptions. As it stands, the values of the masses of all particles are parameters that we measure in the laboratory, related to how strongly they interact with the Higgs. We don't know why some interact much stronger than others (and, as a consequence, have larger masses), why there is a prevalence of matter over antimatter, or why the universe seems to be dominated by dark matter — a kind of matter we know nothing about, apart from the fact that it's not part of the recipe included in the Standard Model. We know dark matter has mass since its gravitational effects are felt in familiar matter, the matter that makes up galaxies and stars. But we don't know what it is.
Whatever happens, new science will be learned.
Physicists had hoped that the powerful Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland would shed light on the nature of dark matter, but nothing has come up there or in many direct searches, where detectors were mounted to collect dark matter that presumably would rain down from the skies and hit particles of ordinary matter.
Could muons fill in the gaps?
Enter the muons. The hope that these particles can help solve the shortcomings of the Standard Model has two parts to it. The first is that every particle, like a muon, that has an electric charge can be pictured simplistically as a spinning sphere. Spinning spheres and disks of charge create a magnetic field perpendicular to the direction of the spin. Picture the muon as a tiny spinning top. If it's rotating counterclockwise, its magnetic field would point vertically up. (Grab a glass of water with your right hand and turn it counterclockwise. Your thumb will be pointing up, the direction of the magnetic field.) The spinning muons will be placed into a doughnut-shaped tunnel and forced to go around and around. The tunnel will have its own magnetic field that will interact with the tiny magnetic field of the muons. As the muons circle the doughnut, they will wobble about, just like spinning-tops wobble on the ground due to their interaction with Earth's gravity. The amount of wobbling depends on the magnetic properties of the muon which, in turn, depend on what's going on with the muon in space.
Credit: Fabrice Coffrini / Getty Images
This is where the second idea comes in, the quantum vacuum. In physics, there is no empty space. The so-called vacuum is actually a bubbling soup of particles that appear and disappear in fractions of a second. Everything fluctuates, as encapsulated in Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Energy fluctuates too, what we call zero-point energy. Since energy and mass are interconvertible (E=mc2, remember?), these tiny fluctuations of energy can be momentarily converted into particles that pop out and back into the busy nothingness of the quantum vacuum. Every particle of matter is cloaked with these particles emerging from vacuum fluctuations. Thus, a muon is not only a muon, but a muon dressed with these extra fleeting bits of stuff. That being the case, these extra particles affect a muon's magnetic field, and thus, its wobbling properties.
About 20 years ago, physicists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory detected anomalies in the muon's magnetic properties, larger than what theory predicted. This would mean that the quantum vacuum produces particles not accounted for by the Standard Model: new physics! Fast forward to 2017, and the experiment, at four times higher sensitivity, was repeated at the Fermi National Laboratory, where yours truly was a postdoctoral fellow a while back. The first results of the Muon g-2 experiment were unveiled on 7-April-2021 and not only confirmed the existence of a magnetic moment anomaly but greatly amplified it.
To most people, the official results, published recently, don't seem so exciting: a "tension between theory and experiment of 4.2 standard deviations." The gold standard for a new discovery in particle physics is a 5-sigma variation, or one part in 3.5 million. (That is, running the experiment 3.5 million times and only observing the anomaly once.) However, that's enough for plenty of excitement in the particle physics community, given the remarkable precision of the experimental measurements.
A time for excitement?
Now, results must be reanalyzed very carefully to make sure that (1) there are no hidden experimental errors; and (2) the theoretical calculations are not off. There will be a frenzy of calculations and papers in the coming months, all trying to make sense of the results, both on the experimental and theoretical fronts. And this is exactly how it should be. Science is a community-based effort, and the work of many compete with and complete each other.
Whatever happens, new science will be learned, even if less exciting than new particles. Or maybe, new particles have been there all along, blipping in and out of existence from the quantum vacuum, waiting to be pulled out of this busy nothingness by our tenacious efforts to find out what the world is made of.
- Benjamin Franklin wrote essays on a whole range of subjects, but one of his finest was on how to be a nice, likable person.
- Franklin lists a whole series of common errors people make while in the company of others, like over-talking or storytelling.
- His simple recipe for being good company is to be genuinely interested in others and to accept them for who they are.
Think of the nicest person you know. The person who would fit into any group configuration, who no one can dislike, or who makes a room warmer and happier just by being there.
What makes them this way? Why are they so amiable, likeable, or good-natured? What is it, you think, that makes a person good company?
There are really only two things that make someone likable.
This is the kind of advice that comes from one of history's most famously good-natured thinkers: Benjamin Franklin. His essay "On Conversation" is full of practical, surprisingly modern tips about how to be a nice person.
Franklin begins by arguing that there are really only two things that make someone likable. First, they have to be genuinely interested in what others say. Second, they have to be willing "to overlook or excuse Foibles." In other words, being good company means listening to people and ignoring their faults. Being witty, well-read, intelligent, or incredibly handsome can all make a good impression, but they're nothing without these two simple rules.
The sort of person nobody likes
From here, Franklin goes on to give a list of the common errors people tend to make while in company. These are the things people do that makes us dislike them. We might even find, with a sinking feeling in our stomach, that we do some of these ourselves.
1) Talking too much and becoming a "chaos of noise and nonsense." These people invariably talk about themselves, but even if "they speak beautifully," it's still ultimately more a soliloquy than a real conversation. Franklin mentions how funny it can be to see these kinds of people come together. They "neither hear nor care what the other says; but both talk on at any rate, and never fail to part highly disgusted with each other."
2) Asking too many questions. Interrogators are those people who have an "impertinent Inquisitiveness… of ten thousand questions," and it can feel like you're caught between a psychoanalyst and a lawyer. In itself, this might not be a bad thing, but Franklin notes it's usually just from a sense of nosiness and gossip. The questions are only designed to "discover secrets…and expose the mistakes of others."
3) Storytelling. You know those people who always have a scripted story they tell at every single gathering? Utterly painful. They'll either be entirely oblivious to how little others care for their story, or they'll be aware and carry on regardless. Franklin notes, "Old Folks are most subject to this Error," which we might think is perhaps harsh, or comically honest, depending on our age.
4) Debating. Some people are always itching for a fight or debate. The "Wrangling and Disputing" types inevitably make everyone else feel like they need to watch what they say. If you give even the lightest or most modest opinion on something, "you throw them into Rage and Passion." For them, the conversation is a boxing fight, and words are punches to be thrown.
5) Misjudging. Ribbing or mocking someone should be a careful business. We must never mock "Misfortunes, Defects, or Deformities of any kind", and should always be 100% sure we won't upset anyone. If there's any doubt about how a "joke" will be taken, don't say it. Offense is easily taken and hard to forget.
On practical philosophy
Franklin's essay is a trove of great advice, and this article only touches on the major themes. It really is worth your time to read it in its entirety. As you do, it's hard not to smile along or to think, "Yes! I've been in that situation." Though the world has changed dramatically in the 300 years since Franklin's essay, much is exactly the same. Basic etiquette doesn't change.
If there's only one thing to take away from Franklin's essay, it comes at the end, where he revises his simple recipe for being nice:
"Be ever ready to hear what others say… and do not censure others, nor expose their Failings, but kindly excuse or hide them"
So, all it takes to be good company is to listen and accept someone for who they are.
Philosophy doesn't always have to be about huge questions of truth, beauty, morality, art, or meaning. Sometimes it can teach us simply how to not be a jerk.
A recent study analyzed the skulls of early Homo species to learn more about the evolution of primate brains.