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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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What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
We’ve mapped a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Take the virtual tour here.
See the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
Astronomers have mapped about a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way, in the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.