Is the way we hear music biological or cultural?
People who are accustomed to listening to Western music, which is based on a system of notes organized in octaves, can usually perceive the similarity between notes that are same but played in different registers — say, high C and middle C.
However, a longstanding question is whether this a universal phenomenon or one that has been ingrained by musical exposure.
This question has been hard to answer, in part because of the difficulty in finding people who have not been exposed to Western music. Now, a new study led by researchers from MIT and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics has found that unlike residents of the United States, people living in a remote area of the Bolivian rainforest usually do not perceive the similarities between two versions of the same note played at different registers (high or low).
The findings suggest that although there is a natural mathematical relationship between the frequencies of every "C," no matter what octave it's played in, the brain only becomes attuned to those similarities after hearing music based on octaves, says Josh McDermott, an associate professor in MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.
"It may well be that there is a biological predisposition to favor octave relationships, but it doesn't seem to be realized unless you are exposed to music in an octave-based system," says McDermott, who is also a member of MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research and Center for Brains, Minds and Machines.
The study also found that members of the Bolivian tribe, known as the Tsimane', and Westerners do have a very similar upper limit on the frequency of notes that they can accurately distinguish, suggesting that that aspect of pitch perception may be independent of musical experience and biologically determined.
McDermott is the senior author of the study, which appears in the journal Current Biology on Sept. 19. Nori Jacoby, a former MIT postdoc who is now a group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, is the paper's lead author. Other authors are Eduardo Undurraga, an assistant professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile; Malinda McPherson, a graduate student in the Harvard/MIT Program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology; Joaquin Valdes, a graduate student at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile; and Tomas Ossandon, an assistant professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.
Cross-cultural studies of how music is perceived can shed light on the interplay between biological constraints and cultural influences that shape human perception. McDermott's lab has performed several such studies with the participation of Tsimane' tribe members, who live in relative isolation from Western culture and have had little exposure to Western music.
In a study published in 2016, McDermott and his colleagues found that Westerners and Tsimane' had different aesthetic reactions to chords, or combinations of notes. To Western ears, the combination of C and F# is very grating, but Tsimane' listeners rated this chord just as likeable as other chords that Westerners would interpret as more pleasant, such as C and G.
Later, Jacoby and McDermott found that both Westerners and Tsimane' are drawn to musical rhythms composed of simple integer ratios, but the ratios they favor are different, based on which rhythms are more common in the music they listen to.
In their new study, the researchers studied pitch perception using an experimental design in which they play a very simple tune, only two or three notes, and then ask the listener to sing it back. The notes that were played could come from any octave within the range of human hearing, but listeners sang their responses within their vocal range, usually restricted to a single octave.
Western listeners, especially those who were trained musicians, tended to reproduce the tune an exact number of octaves above or below what they heard, though they were not specifically instructed to do so. In Western music, the pitch of the same note doubles with each ascending octave, so tones with frequencies of 27.5 hertz, 55 hertz, 110 hertz, 220 hertz, and so on, are all heard as the note A.
Western listeners in the study, all of whom lived in New York or Boston, accurately reproduced sequences such as A-C-A, but in a different register, as though they hear the similarity of notes separated by octaves. However, the Tsimane' did not.
"The relative pitch was preserved (between notes in the series), but the absolute pitch produced by the Tsimane' didn't have any relationship to the absolute pitch of the stimulus," Jacoby says. "That's consistent with the idea that perceptual similarity is something that we acquire from exposure to Western music, where the octave is structurally very important."
The ability to reproduce the same note in different octaves may be honed by singing along with others whose natural registers are different, or singing along with an instrument being played in a different pitch range, Jacoby says.
Limits of perception
The study findings also shed light on the upper limits of pitch perception for humans. It has been known for a long time that Western listeners cannot accurately distinguish pitches above about 4,000 hertz, although they can still hear frequencies up to nearly 20,000 hertz. In a traditional 88-key piano, the highest note is about 4,100 hertz.
People have speculated that the piano was designed to go only that high because of a fundamental limit on pitch perception, but McDermott thought it could be possible that the opposite was true: That is, the limit was culturally influenced by the fact that few musical instruments produce frequencies higher than 4,000 hertz.
The researchers found that although Tsimane' musical instruments usually have upper limits much lower than 4,000 hertz, Tsimane' listeners could distinguish pitches very well up to about 4,000 hertz, as evidenced by accurate sung reproductions of those pitch intervals. Above that threshold, their perceptions broke down, very similarly to Western listeners.
"It looks almost exactly the same across groups, so we have some evidence for biological constraints on the limits of pitch," Jacoby says.
One possible explanation for this limit is that once frequencies reach about 4,000 hertz, the firing rates of the neurons of our inner ear can't keep up and we lose a critical cue with which to distinguish different frequencies.
"The new study contributes to the age-long debate about the interplays between culture and biological constraints in music," says Daniel Pressnitzer, a senior research scientist at Paris Descartes University, who was not involved in the research. "This unique, precious, and extensive dataset demonstrates both striking similarities and unexpected differences in how Tsimane' and Western listeners perceive or conceive musical pitch."
Jacoby and McDermott now hope to expand their cross-cultural studies to other groups who have had little exposure to Western music, and to perform more detailed studies of pitch perception among the Tsimane'.
Such studies have already shown the value of including research participants other than the Western-educated, relatively wealthy college undergraduates who are the subjects of most academic studies on perception, McDermott says. These broader studies allow researchers to tease out different elements of perception that cannot be seen when examining only a single, homogenous group.
"We're finding that there are some cross-cultural similarities, but there also seems to be really striking variation in things that a lot of people would have presumed would be common across cultures and listeners," McDermott says. "These differences in experience can lead to dissociations of different aspects of perception, giving you clues to what the parts of the perceptual system are."
The research was funded by the James S. McDonnell Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience Program at Columbia University.
Singing is universal. It is found in all cultures and, despite protestations of tone deafness, the vast majority of people can sing.
In Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), the movie about the British band Queen, the scene that sticks in my mind depicts the Live Aid concert in London in 1985.
Queen belt out their best-loved songs and the crowd is singing along, swaying, clapping and stamping its feet. I could empathise a potent sense of togetherness in the audience, a feeling of cohesion between thousands of fans, coming not only from a shared enjoyment of watching the band but, more importantly, from being part of the music-making. It's no wonder that the film shows the Live Aid donations start to climb during this set: we know that social bonding is associated with more prosocial behaviour. As a researcher, I am interested in how and why this sense of solidity from singing comes about.
Singing is universal. It is found in all cultures and, despite protestations of tone deafness, the vast majority of people can sing. Singing also often occurs in collective contexts: think about sports stadiums, religious services and birthday celebrations. Given these two characteristics, my colleagues and I wondered whether singing is a behaviour that evolved to bond groups together.
Being part of a group is essential to human survival. In our hunter-gatherer past, having supportive social relationships would have enabled people to get the resources they needed to defend them against outsiders, to benefit from collective childrearing, and to share and develop cultural knowledge about their environment and about useful technological inventions. We now also know that feeling sufficiently socially connected guards against physical and mental illness, and increases longevity.
The trouble is that human social groups are much larger than those of our primate relatives. Whereas monkeys and apes create social bonds through one-to-one grooming sessions, human groups are too large to be able to do that and still have enough time to eat and sleep. We needed a more efficient mechanism of creating social cohesion, a way to bond larger numbers of individuals together simultaneously.
To find out whether singing might fill this role, we needed to find out if this activity was capable of making large groups of individuals feel closer to each other. To help us answer this question, we teamed up with Popchoir, a British organisation that runs local choirs across London and beyond. What is great about Popchoir is that these different local choirs of a few dozen members periodically come together to create a unified 'Megachoir' of several hundred members. Our research team went along to some rehearsals to collect data before and after they sang together, either in their local choir or in the amalgamated Megachoir. The team included Daniel Weinstein and Lauren Stewart at Goldsmiths, University of London, Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford and Jacques Launay at Brunel University in London, and we found that, on average, people showed a significantly bigger increase in how close they felt to the Megachoir over the course of singing with them, compared with when they were singing with their local choir.
This was because, before singing together, people felt closer to their usual choir than to the Megachoir. This makes sense: the Megachoir was mainly made up of people they had never met before. However, after singing together, people felt equally close to both their familiar, local choir and to the larger, less familiar Megachoir. So singing can create cohesion in large groups of several hundred individuals, supporting the idea that this behaviour might have evolved to create community cohesion in humans.
What we still didn’t know, however, was whether singing itself is special, or whether any activity that provided opportunities for social engagement could have similar bonding effects. To tackle this issue, we collaborated with the Workers' Educational Association (WEA), a national adult-education charity in the UK. We predicted that singing classes would become more closely bonded than other types of classes (either creative writing or crafts). We were wrong: at the end of the seven-month courses, all the classes were equally bonded. But as we looked more closely at the data, we saw something that surprised us. Singing seemed to bond the newly formed groups much more quickly than the comparison activities. It was the most effective. So singing is special: it has an ice-breaker effect.
Although singing often takes place in a collaborative context such as a religious service, it can also take on a more competitive vibe, for example, when supporters of opposing sports teams try to outdo each other with their anthems. We wanted to see what effect this might have on the social bonding effects of singing, and to do so we collected data in a fraternity-like social club at a major European university. This club is made up of formalised 'cliques', each of which has its own name and dress code. These cliques compete with each other on various ranking systems such as frequency of attendance at club events, and have sing-offs and dance-offs to win prized positions in the club bar. We asked students participating in our study to sing as loudly as possible in small groups of four, either with another group of four from the same clique, or with a group of four from a different clique.
When the groups were from the same clique, cooperative singing had no effect: they were already strongly bonded so there was no way to increase their closeness. However, if members of the same clique sang competitively against each other, this actually decreased their feelings of closeness.
Where things got especially interesting was when the two singing groups were from different cliques. We found that cooperative singing significantly increased their feelings of closeness to the group from the other clique. But we were startled to see that competitive singing did this too. In other words, singing with less familiar individuals created stronger social bonds, even when they were competing. The ice-breaker effect again.
What creates this effect? At the moment we don't really know, but we can take some guesses. In nonhuman primates, grooming facilitates social bonding through the release of endorphins, which counteract pain and give you a buzz. From recent PET-scanning work, we also know that social touch by a romantic partner is associated with endorphin release in humans. But what about behaviours that might allow simultaneous bonding of groups? Well, activities such as social laughter and synchronous dance seem to be associated with endorphin release, and the same goes for singing. The coordination of breathing required in singing, and the muscular effort involved in this synchronous activity, is likely to play a key role in this. Consequently, these behaviours might have piggybacked on the endorphin-bonding systems associated with grooming, but allow the bonding of greater numbers of individuals at once.
Another possible difference between these endorphin-releasing behaviours might be the size of group that can bond simultaneously. Conversation groups seems to have a size limit of around four speakers before splitting into subgroups. And given that laughter often occurs in natural conversation groupings (outside of the fairly recent phenomenon of stand-up comics who fill stadiums), this might mean that laughter is best-suited to small-group bonding. In contrast, singing can bond hundreds of individuals at the same time – and this can stretch into the thousands when there is a focal point keeping everyone together, for example, a band such as Queen.
We still don't know whether it is the act of singing per se that has this effect, for example through stimulating endorphin release via coordinated muscular effort, or whether it is the shared goal of producing music that creates the cohesion. We also don't know whether it is coordinated rhythm that stimulates the bonding effect, or whether the increased coordination required for producing harmony ramps it up. But whatever the case, part of the success of a band like Queen is that, by encouraging audience participation in its music, it successfully taps into an evolutionary mechanism of potent social bonding that creates strong connections quickly with large numbers of people from all around the world.
It may be growing in popularity, but is there anything substantive to this new wellness trend?
- Workplace choirs are becoming increasingly popular in the U.K. and USA, particularly in companies such as Boeing, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google.
- Proponents tout choirs as a way to avoid employee burnout, and the research seems to suggest they're right.
- Singing in choirs comes with a slew of psychosocial benefits that can make the workday a little more bearable.
In some workplaces, you might find yourself taking a break from filling out TPS reports to working on hitting the high notes of "Bohemian Rhapsody." More and more businesses are encouraging their employees to start work choirs to improve their physical and mental health and promote social cohesion.
It might seem like an odd solution, but workplace choirs are an effective response to employee burnout. A recent Gallup study found that 23 percent of employees feel burned out at work often or all the time, and another 44 percent feels burned out some of the time. Employees who feel burned out are more than twice as likely to actively seek out other employment and 63 percent more likely to take sick days. They're less confident in their performance, less likely to work with their managers toward goals, and more likely to visit the emergency room.
How did workplace choirs come to be and what are the benefits?
But why is singing being implemented as a solution to this? Part of the reason has to be attributed to the popularity of the 2012 British TV show, The Choir: Sing While You Work, in which choirmaster Gareth Malone trains amateur workplace-based choirs to compete against one another. Over time, more and more businesses in the U.K. began implementing workplace choirs, including Wellington Place's workplace choir in the video below.
Now, it's not just U.K.-based businesses that are assembling choirs. Boeing, Facebook, and LinkedIn all have their own choirs as well, and Google has its own a capella group called Googapella. The city of Cincinnati even has its own city-wide choir competition called CincySings that pits different company choirs together.
Jordan Shue, a representative of Americans for the Arts, told the Chorus Connection blog that "[An employee choir] is a way to show employees that you value them and want them to have fun at work. It also challenges them to show their creative sides and work as a team on a project vastly different from what they do in the office day to day. That can have a huge impact on the way they work together in the future and how connected they feel to their company."
Research backs this up, too. Choirs have been shown to promote a sense of togetherness and social cohesion. Choral singing can be good for your heart as well and can even cause the heart rates of choral group members to rise and fall in tandem. Choirs reduce stress and depression, improve respiratory health and self-esteem, and stimulate cognition. And, crucially for the workplace, singing promotes social bonding.
There's a good reason why so many companies set time aside for often-underwhelming team-building exercises. Human beings can't simply spend 8 hours a day as robots; they need to bond with other human beings and be social. Doing so doesn't just make for happier workers, it also makes for more productive ones — both because of improved personal outcomes and because of the interpersonal connections that singing promotes.
Not a new idea
While implementing a choir in the workplace might seem like something of a fad or a product of a modern-day obsession with creating hip workplaces, singing at work is actually quite old — ancient, in fact. Musician Ted Gioia's book Work Songs explores the many different historical contexts where laborers sang during their work, whether that was enslaved plantation workers, miners, chain gangs, oyster shuckers, or any other kind of laborers.
"It made the work less arduous, it made the hours roll by," said Gioia. "It allowed them to have some sort of mastery over their work conditions, which were often very demeaning ones." Though one might make argue that this kind of hard labor differs significantly from the modern, sterile office, the rising rates of worker burnout belies that contrast and underscore the value of music in the workplace.