Music, The Universal Language of Mankind


Music has been called “the universal language of mankind”.  Indeed, music exists in all cultures, but is there something common to all music in the world? Do truly universal musical characteristics exist?

A recently published study investigated this intriguing question. The study looked at a comprehensive sample of global music recordings to find commonalities between music originating from different cultures. The recordings were from the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music with samples of traditional, indigenous as well as contemporary and studio music from North America, Central and South America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania.

The music samples were analyzed for a wide variety of characteristics, including the existence of features like two-beat divisions, descending melodic contours, group performance, use of specific instruments, percussions, and incorporation of dance. In addition to this, the researchers looked at links between the cultures from which the music originated, to account for the role of cultural similarity in any resulting similarities in the musical characteristics. This was done through something called phylogenetic comparative analyses, typically used to investigate evolutionary relationships between species, i.e. how closely two or more organisms are related. The researchers sought to identify how common the studied musical characteristics were, and whether they were present across all types of analyzed music after controlling for similarities in cultural origin.

According to the results, there were no absolutely common characteristics across all music samples. The researchers did, however, find a set of characteristics that were highly similar and very common in the samples studied. Among these, were:

  • Pitch - Most music has a set of scales, and melodies that have descending or ascending contour
  • Rhythm - Most music has a steady beat, most often divided into groups or twos and threes
  • Instrumentation - In addition to song, music is produced with instruments
  • Performance - Most sung music has words instead of just syllables or other sounds
  • Social context - Music is most often performed in groups

These characteristics of music are so common, that these findings may not seem very surprising. This study is however, the first to quantify the existence of shared traits in different types of music, even though people may have intuitively known that the above characteristics are shared between musical forms.

An interesting question follows - why do cultures that have developed independently produce similar features in their music? The researchers put forward several suggestions:

Human Biology: The commonalities of our vocal organs influence the ways in which sound is produced, resulting in similarities of singing across cultures. The fact that humans have two feet may have led to the predominance of two-beat structures in music through the rhythm of our walk.

The Ability to Create Tools: The human ability to create tools has also spread to the musical domain and led to the construction of instruments in several cultures.

Social Advantages of Music: A steady beat synchronizes individuals, and supports coordination and cohesion of groups, thereby supporting survival of individuals. Music as a nonverbal form of emotion expression can also increase the efficiency of communication and promote better understanding between individuals.

Speculating about the origins of music is intriguing – why did something this complex emerge during human evolution, and why did it attain such similarities across cultures that developed independently? This study points towards the importance of looking at contextual and social factors in addition to common sound characteristics. Perhaps, the most important reason why music exists in all cultures is after all social: music as a joint action and through its acoustic characteristics increases cohesion, it brings us together and keeps us together, it makes us sync.

written by ketki karanam



Savage, P. E., Brown, S., Sakai, E., & Currie, T. E. (2015). Statistical universals reveal the structures and functions of human music. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 112(29), 8987–8992. doi:10.1073/pnas.1414495112