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Curr Biol. 2018 Feb 5;28(3):356-368.e5. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.12.042. Epub 2018 Jan 25.

Form and Function in Human Song.

Author information

1
Department of Psychology, Harvard University, 33 Kirkland St., Cambridge, MA 02138, USA; Data Science Initiative, Harvard University, 1350 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138, USA; School of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington, Kelburn Parade, Wellington 6012, New Zealand. Electronic address: sam@wjh.harvard.edu.
2
Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Peabody Museum, 11 Divinity Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138, USA. Electronic address: manvirsingh@fas.harvard.edu.
3
Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Peabody Museum, 11 Divinity Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.
4
Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse, 21 Allée de Brienne, 31015 Toulouse, France; Department of Anthropology, Pennsylvania State University, 410 Carpenter Building, University Park, PA 16802, USA.
5
Department of Psychology, Harvard University, 33 Kirkland St., Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.

Abstract

Humans use music for a variety of social functions: we sing to accompany dance, to soothe babies, to heal illness, to communicate love, and so on. Across animal taxa, vocalization forms are shaped by their functions, including in humans. Here, we show that vocal music exhibits recurrent, distinct, and cross-culturally robust form-function relations that are detectable by listeners across the globe. In Experiment 1, internet users (n = 750) in 60 countries listened to brief excerpts of songs, rating each song's function on six dimensions (e.g., "used to soothe a baby"). Excerpts were drawn from a geographically stratified pseudorandom sample of dance songs, lullabies, healing songs, and love songs recorded in 86 mostly small-scale societies, including hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and subsistence farmers. Experiment 1 and its analysis plan were pre-registered. Despite participants' unfamiliarity with the societies represented, the random sampling of each excerpt, their very short duration (14 s), and the enormous diversity of this music, the ratings demonstrated accurate and cross-culturally reliable inferences about song functions on the basis of song forms alone. In Experiment 2, internet users (n = 1,000) in the United States and India rated three contextual features (e.g., gender of singer) and seven musical features (e.g., melodic complexity) of each excerpt. The songs' contextual features were predictive of Experiment 1 function ratings, but musical features and the songs' actual functions explained unique variance in function ratings. These findings are consistent with the existence of universal links between form and function in vocal music.

KEYWORDS:

culture; diversity; evolution; form; function; music; song; universality; vocalization

PMID:
29395919
PMCID:
PMC5805477
DOI:
10.1016/j.cub.2017.12.042
[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

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