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Singing Researchers Investigate Cross-Cultural Patterns In Music, Language

Neddiel Elcie Muñoz Millalonco (Chile) | PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Seventy-five researchers from 46 countries recorded themselves performing traditional music and speaking in their own languages in a novel experiment investigating cross-cultural differences and similarities.

With rare exceptions, the rhythms of songs and instrumental melodies were slower than for speech, while the pitches were higher and more stable, according to the study published in Science Advances

Unique for the number of languages represented – 55 – and the diversity of the researchers, the study provides “strong evidence for cross-cultural regularities,” according to senior author Dr Patrick Savage of Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland, a psychologist and musicologist who sang ‘Scarborough Fair’.

Speculating on underlying reasons, Savage, a Rutherford Discovery Fellow in the University’s School of Psychology, suggests song is more predictably regular than speech to facilitate synchronisation and social bonding.

“Slow, regular, predictable melodies make it easier for us to sing together in large groups,” he says. ”We’re trying to shed light on the cultural and biological evolution of two systems that make us human: music and language.”

Gakuto Chiba (Japan) | PHOTO: SUPPLIED
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Tapping into academic networks for cost-effective global reach, Savage and lead author Dr Yuto Ozaki from Keio University in Japan recruited researchers across Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe and the Pacific to sing, perform instrumentals, recite lyrics and describe songs, providing audio samples to be analysed for features such as pitch, timbre and rhythm.

Dr Ozaki sang the Japanese folk song ‘Ōmori Jinku’.

In Auckland, Professor Suzanne Purdy sang the Māori love song ‘Pōkarekare Ana’.

Participants’ languages included Yoruba, Mandarin, Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic, Ukrainian, Russian, Balinese, Cherokee, Kannada, Spanish, Aynu, and dozens more.

Researchers with extensive vocal training included Dr Shantala Hegde, a Hindustani classical music singer and neuroscientist, and expert instrumentalists included Senegalese drummer Latyr Sy and a national champion of Japan’s Tsugaru-shamisen instrument, Gakuto Chiba.

Experts in ethnomusicology, music psychology, linguistics, and evolutionary biology took part, including the two most recent presidents of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition, Professor Peter Pfordresher (a native English speaker, pianist, and psychologist) and Dr Psyche Loui (a native Cantonese speaker, violinist, and neuroscientist).

Latyr Sy (Senegal | PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Limitations of the study included the small sample size within each language. Additionally, while everyone taking part could sing a traditional song in their own language, not all participants could play its melody on an instrument. In some traditions, this idea didn’t even make sense. In those cases, researchers performed just the song’s rhythm using percussive instruments like a drum or clapping their hands.

Aleksandar Arabadjiev (Macedonia) | PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Additional studies funded by Marsden Fund and Rutherford Discovery Fellowship awards from the Royal Society Te Apārangi will include more participants from a subset of the languages, including Māori and English.

For a three-minute video of researchers singing, speaking, and playing traditional instruments from their cultures, see https://youtu.be/a4eNNrdcfDM.

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