In the world of music, love songs get lost in translation

by | Oct 30, 2023

While people across cultures can discern the behavioral context of various vocal songs, they struggle to identify love songs.
A guitar on a white background.

Even though music styles vary across the world, songs within a genre have similar features: dance songs have strong beats while lullabies are quietly dulcet. In a recent study, researchers report that people can discern the behavioral context of vocal songs, across barriers of culture and language. Musical perception appears to be universal, with one exception: love songs.

“These results provide additional and converging evidence in support of universal perceptual biases in musical interpretations, including outside of English-speaking cultures. Indeed one of the key strengths of this large scale study is its broad sample of listeners from dozens of countries and language families,” Katarzyna Pisanski, a researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), who was not involved in the study, wrote in an email.

“The study also elegantly shows that geographic or linguistic similarities among participants can explain only a small proportion of the variance in their ratings of songs.”

While previous studies have shown that people can perceive the behavioral tone of vocal music, they have been largely limited to English-speaking participants. Whether musical perception is truly universal and valid across cultures is less well-established.

So, for their study, Lidya Yurdum, a researcher at Yale University, United States, and colleagues sought a more global dataset, with inputs from communities around the world, including those wherein English is not the primary language.

A global study

The research team recruited a global study population representing different language families and geographic regions. The final study population included 5,516 native speakers of 28 languages from 49 industralized societies and 116 native speakers from 3 smaller-scale societies. The smaller-scale societies had limited exposure to music from outside their cultures.

All participants listened to a random selection of 14 second segments of vocal music taken from the Natural History of Song Discography. This music database contains 118 songs, recorded in 86 largely smaller-scale societies across 30 regions of the world, encompassing 75 languages.

The musical samples were originally classified to one of four categories: lullaby, love song, dance or healing music. On listening to the vocal segments, the participants rated on a scale the context to which each belonged. These experiments were conducted in the participants’ own languages.

Across industrialized and smaller-scale societies, people clearly picked out which snippets of music were lullabies and dance songs. With slightly less confidence, they were also able to identify healing music. However, participants were baffled when it came to recognizing love songs.

“One reason for this could be that love songs may be a particularly fuzzy category that includes songs that express happiness and attraction, but also sadness and jealousy,” said Yurdum, in a press release. “Listeners who heard love songs from neighboring countries and in languages related to their own actually did a little better, likely because of the familiar linguistic and cultural clues.”

Next, the researchers wanted to see if people had an easier time discerning the context of music if it belonged to the same language family as their native tongue or came from their corner of the world. Once again, participants promptly realized which songs were lullabies or dance songs, but continued to be stumped by love songs.

Overall, they were only slightly better at perceiving the behavioral context of music if it was culturally closer to their own. “These results demonstrate that the behavioral contexts of three common forms of music are mutually intelligible cross-culturally and imply that musical diversity, shaped by cultural evolution, is nonetheless grounded in some universal perceptual phenomena,” wrote the researchers.

A universal perception

Across species, vocalizations appear to reflect their function. For example, fearful screams are inclined to be high-pitched so as to draw attention.

“Could similar form-function associations help to explain consistencies in the acoustic forms of certain kinds of music and singing across cultures, such as the slow, rhythmic, and soothing nature of lullabies or the fast-paced, dynamic nature of dance songs?,” wrote Pisanski. “The results of this study support this hypothesis.”

While more complex forms of music may be harder for first-time listeners to identify, simpler forms of music, such as lullabies, may hold a universal appeal and even be functional across different cultures. This avenue of questioning needs to be explored further.

Reference: Lidya Yurdum, et al., Universal interpretations of vocal music, PNAS (2023). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2218593120

Feature image credit: Iu Lia on Unsplash

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