Music is a universal language, except when it comes to love songs | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Music has always been praised for its transcultural nature, often thought of as a language that frees itself from words and geographical concepts.

Music has always been praised for its transcultural nature, often thought of as a language that frees itself from words and geographical concepts. But a new American study reveals that some types of song are more universally recognizable than others.

To come to this conclusion, researchers from various American universities conducted an experiment with over 5,000 people from 49 countries around the world. While the vast majority of these volunteers came from industrialized countries, around a hundred lived in small, relatively isolated communities.

This large sample group was asked to listen to 14-second audio recordings from a bank of songs from a multitude of different cultures. The participants had to rank the likelihood of each excerpt corresponding to either a dance song, a lullaby, healing music or a love song. Unlike most experimental psychology studies, which are conducted in a single language, this one was carried out in some 30 languages.

Regardless of the language used in the survey, people from all cultures were easily able to distinguish dance songs, lullabies and even healing songs. Love songs, however, were surprisingly difficult to recognize. In fact, only 12 of the 28 groups created by the research team managed to identify them correctly, while all the groups were able to identify the lullabies among the audio recordings.

So why did the volunteers have so much trouble recognizing the love songs, when they exist in every language? For Lidya Yurdum, one of the authors of the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, this could be explained by the fact that love songs aren’t always just about love. “Love songs may be a particularly fuzzy category that includes songs that express happiness and attraction, but also sadness and jealousy,” she said in a statement.

This could be why they are more easily recognized by connoisseurs of the genre. In fact, the researchers found that participants who had already listened to love songs in a language other than their own, or from a different country, found it easier to identify them as such. But this phenomenon only applies to love songs. The authors of the study note that “listeners’ ratings [of the songs] were largely accurate, consistent with one another, and not explained by their linguistic or geographical proximity to the singer,” except when the songs they listened to an extract of were about matters of the heart.

For study co-author Samuel Mehr, this clearly shows that music is not a universal art form, even if it transcends sociocultural divides and brings people together. “Music is deeply rooted in human social interaction,” the researcher said in a statement.

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