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Humans across the world dance to the same beat

Study reveals a common beat in global music

University of Exeter

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IMAGE: This is a group of shishi-odori deer dancers, Japanese folk performing artists who sing, drum and perform acrobatic dancing. view more

Credit: Image courtesy of Hiro Ugaya

A new study carried out by the University of Exeter and Tokyo University of the Arts has found that songs from around the world tend to share features, including a strong rhythm, that enable coordination in social situations and encourage group bonding.

Despite decades of skepticism about the presence of cross-culturally universal aspects of music, the study provides strong evidence for the existence of common features in global music. The results, which are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), support the idea that music is a powerful social glue that helps bond societies together.

Dr Thomas Currie from the University of Exeter said: "Our findings help explain why humans make music. The results show that the most common features seen in music around the world relate to things that allow people to coordinate their actions, and suggest that the main function of music is to bring people together and bond social groups - it can be a kind of social glue.

"In the West we can sometimes think of music as being about individuals expressing themselves or displaying their talent, but globally music tends to be more of social phenomena. Even here we see this in things like church choirs, or the singing of national anthems. In countries like North Korea we can also see extreme examples of how music and mass dance can be used to unite and coordinate groups."

The researchers analysed 304 recordings of stylistically diverse music from across the world to reveal the common features. Although they found no absolute universals, they found dozens of statistical universals (i.e., features that were consistently present in a majority of songs across different world regions). These included features related to pitch and rhythm as well as social context and interrelationships between musical features.

The results showed that rhythms based on two or three beats were present in music from all regions sampled - North America, Central/South America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceania.

Lead author Pat Savage, a PhD student from the Tokyo University of the Arts, said: "In the old days, Western people believed that Western scales were universal. But then when we realised that other cultures had quite different ideas about scales, that led some people to conclude that there was nothing universal about music, which I think is just as silly. Now we've shown that despite its great surface diversity, most of the music throughout the world is actually constructed from very similar basic building blocks and performs very similar functions, which mainly revolve around bringing people together.

"My daughter and I were singing and drumming and dancing together for months before she even said her first words. Music is not a universal language... music lets us connect without language." He added.

When analysing the results, the researchers combined a new way of classifying music, originally pioneered by Alan Lomax - a well-known American music collector and archivist whose music was extensively sampled by the musician Moby in his late nineties album Play, with statistical analysis to reveal the features that are common to music from across the world.

"Statistical universals reveal the structures and functions of human music" is published in PNAS by Patrick E. Savage, Steven Brown, Emi Sakai, and Thomas E. Currie.

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Contact

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Image captions and credits

A group of shishi-odori deer dancers, Japanese folk performing artists who sing, drum and perform acrobatic dancing. Image courtesy of Hiro Ugaya (ugaya.org).

A brass band accompanies a dance-drama troupe as they process down a street in San Agustín de Cajas, Peru, during a patron-saint fiesta. Image courtesy of Joshua Katz-Rosene (CUNY).

About the University of Exeter

The University of Exeter is a Russell Group university and in the top one percent of institutions globally. It combines world-class research with very high levels of student satisfaction. Exeter has over 19,000 students and is ranked 7th in The Times and The Sunday Times Good University Guide league table, 10th in The Complete University Guide and 9th in the Guardian University Guide 2015. In the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), the University ranked 16th nationally, with 98% of its research rated as being of international quality. Exeter was The Sunday Times University of the Year 2012-13.

The University has four campuses. The Streatham and St Luke's campuses are in Exeter and there are two campuses in Cornwall, Penryn and Truro. The 2014-2015 academic year marks the 10-year anniversary of the two Cornwall campuses. In a pioneering arrangement in the UK, the Penryn Campus is jointly owned and managed with Falmouth University. At the campus, University of Exeter students can study programmes in the following areas: Animal Behaviour, Conservation Biology and Ecology, English, Environmental Science, Evolutionary Biology, Geography, Geology, History, Human Sciences, Marine Biology, Mining and Minerals Engineering, Politics and International Relations, Renewable Energy and Zoology.

The University has invested strategically to deliver more than £350 million worth of new facilities across its campuses in the past few years; including landmark new student services centres - the Forum in Exeter and The Exchange at Penryn - together with world-class new facilities for Biosciences, the Business School and the Environment and Sustainability Institute. There are plans for another £330 million of investment between now and 2016.

http://www.exeter.ac.uk/cornwall

About the University of Exeter's Centre for Ecology and Conservation (CEC)

Staff at the Centre for Ecology and Conservation, based on the Penryn Campus, undertake cutting-edge research that focusses on whole organism biology. The CEC has three interlinked research groups: Behaviour, Ecology and Conservation, and Evolution which constitute 40 academics and over 100 early career researchers. It engages widely with businesses, charities and government agencies and organisations in Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly and beyond to translate its research into societal impact. Staff at the CEC deliver educational programs to some 500 undergraduate and 100 postgraduate students.

A new £5.5 million Science and Engineering Research Support Facility (SERSF) is currently under construction at the Penryn Campus. The facility will bring pioneering business, science and engineering together and will provide space for the growing CEC alongside the University of Exeter Business School, which is expanding into Cornwall, and the University's Marine Renewables team.

The University of Exeter and Falmouth University are founding partners in the Combined Universities in Cornwall (CUC), a unique collaboration between six universities and colleges to promote regional economic regeneration through Higher Education, funded mainly by the European Union (Objective One and Convergence), the South West Regional Development Agency and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, with support from Cornwall Council.

http://biosciences.exeter.ac.uk/cec/

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