Versions of the Tower of Babel origin myth exist in many cultures as a way to explain why we humans speak so many different languages around the globe. While there’s still no common tongue to unite us all, there might, perhaps, be another way to communicate with our fellow Earthlings: music.

Along with his colleagues, Samuel Mehr of Harvard University set out to discover if music really is universal across all languages. Harkening back to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1835 declaration that “music is the universal language of mankind,” the team wanted hard evidence of this conventional wisdom.

Gathering the music of the world, both ancient and modern, both love songs and mournful ballads, was no small task.

For the past five years, Mehr and his team have been hunting down hundreds of recordings, from public libraries to obscure private collections. Their project, dubbed The Natural History of Song, is a database of almost 5,000 descriptions of songs and song performances from 60 human societies.

“We are so used to being able to find any piece of music that we like on the internet,” said Mehr, who is now a principal investigator at Harvard’s Music Lab. “But there are thousands and thousands of recordings buried in archives that are not accessible online. We didn’t know what we would find: at one point we found an odd-looking call number, asked a Harvard librarian for help, and twenty minutes later she wheeled out a cart of about 20 cases of reel-to-reel recordings of traditional Celtic music.”

Sing us a song

An Australian brass band in 1906. (Photo: Unknown [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)

This is the team’s largest and most ambitious study to date, with the full results recently published in Science.

The study was truly universal, with musicians, data scientists, psychologists, linguists and political scientists all participating in this international collaboration.

More than just music, the scientists drilled down, sorting the songs and song performances into 60 variables for easy cross-referencing. The variables included the demographics of singers and audience members; the presence of instruments and special costumes; the duration of the song; and the time of day. Keywords were also assigned to events leading up to a song performance, as well as its behavioral context, function and lyrics.

A second database focused solely on four categories of songs: lullabies, love songs, healing songs and dance songs. Despite their differences, songs in each category shared underlying structural concepts, which could be considered the “grammar” or building blocks of music.

“As a graduate student, I was working on studies of infant music perception and I started to see all these studies that made claims about music being universal,” Mehr explains. “How is it that every paper on music starts out with this big claim but there’s never a citation backing that up … Now we can back that up.”

Test your ears

A screenshot of Harvard's Music Lab world music quiz.
A screenshot of Harvard’s Music Lab world music quiz. (Photo: Harvard Music Lab)

If you’d like to test your own musical acumen, the folks at Harvard’s Music Lab have kindly put together some interactive quizzes for your listening pleasure (and that link takes a few seconds to build, so be patient). The world music quiz plays snippets of songs in one of the four aforementioned categories, then asks you to guess if the crooning is for a baby, a sickly person, a lover or those just wanting to dance.

From a lullaby sung by the Native American Hopi tribe to a dance song from the Maasai people of Tanzania to a healing song performed by a member of the Anggor people of Papua New Guinea, you might be surprised to see how many songs you can correctly categorize.

Mehr, who began his academic studies in music education, looks forward to further studies on “musical grammar,” and breaking down age-old assumptions.

“In music theory, tonality is often assumed to be an invention of Western music, but our data raise the controversial possibility that this could be a universal feature of music,” Mehr adds. “That raises pressing questions about structure that underlies music everywhere — and whether and how our minds are designed to make music.”

Music is the language we all share

Harvard’s Music Lab has spent five years compiling a large database of thousands of songs from all over the world — with some striking similarities.