Music may be the food of love, but oddly, is not its language

Jan 25, 2018

A lullaby in any language

“WHERE words fail, music speaks.” Though these words, from the pen of Hans Christian Andersen, are an appealing notion, the idea that there might be universals in music which transcend cultural boundaries has generally been met with scepticism by scholars working in the field. That scepticism may, however, be unwarranted, for research published in Current Biology this week by Samuel Mehr and Manvir Singh of Harvard University provides evidence that music does indeed permit the communication of simple ideas between people even when they have no language in common.

To ascertain this, the two researchers recruited 750 online volunteers from 60 countries. They played these volunteers 36 musical excerpts, each 14 seconds long, and each drawn at random from one of 118 songs in a collection of the music of small-scale societies around the world. Given the broad range of cultures and languages represented in the collection...

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