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Singing researchers find cross-cultural patterns in music and language

May 15, 2024
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
Are acoustic features of music and spoken language shared across cultures? Researchers recorded themselves performing traditional music and speaking in their native language. In all 50+ languages, the rhythms of songs and instrumental melodies were slower than those of speech, while the pitches were higher and more stable.

Language and music may share evolutionary functions. Both speech and song have features such as rhythm and pitch. But are similarities and differences between speech and song shared across cultures?

To investigate this question, 75 researchers -- speaking 55 languages -- were recruited across Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe and the Pacific. Among them were experts in ethnomusicology, music psychology, linguistics, and evolutionary biology. The researchers were asked to sing, perform instrumentals, recite lyrics and verbally describe songs. The resulting audio samples were analysed for features such as pitch, timbre and rhythm.

The study provides "strong evidence for cross-cultural regularities," according to senior author Patrick Savage of Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland, a psychologist and musicologist who sang 'Scarborough Fair'.

MPI's Limor Raviv, co-author on the study, recorded the Hebrew song 'Yerushalayim Shel Zahav'. Fellow author Andrea Ravignani from the MPI recorded the Italian song 'Bella Ciao', playing the saxophone. The collection also featured the Dutch songs 'Hoor de wind waait' and 'Dikkertje Dap'.

A three-minute video [] of researchers singing, speaking, and playing traditional instruments from their cultures is available.

Speculating on underlying reasons for the cross-cultural similarities, Savage suggests songs are more predictably regular than speech because they are used 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."

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Materials provided by Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Yuto Ozaki, Adam Tierney, Peter Q. Pfordresher, John M. McBride, Emmanouil Benetos, Polina Proutskova, Gakuto Chiba, Fang Liu, Nori Jacoby, Suzanne C. Purdy, Patricia Opondo, W. Tecumseh Fitch, Shantala Hegde, Martín Rocamora, Rob Thorne, Florence Nweke, Dhwani P. Sadaphal, Parimal M. Sadaphal, Shafagh Hadavi, Shinya Fujii, Sangbuem Choo, Marin Naruse, Utae Ehara, Latyr Sy, Mark Lenini Parselelo, Manuel Anglada-Tort, Niels Chr. Hansen, Felix Haiduk, Ulvhild Færøvik, Violeta Magalhães, Wojciech Krzyżanowski, Olena Shcherbakova, Diana Hereld, Brenda Suyanne Barbosa, Marco Antonio Correa Varella, Mark van Tongeren, Polina Dessiatnitchenko, Su Zar Zar, Iyadh El Kahla, Olcay Muslu, Jakelin Troy, Teona Lomsadze, Dilyana Kurdova, Cristiano Tsope, Daniel Fredriksson, Aleksandar Arabadjiev, Jehoshaphat Philip Sarbah, Adwoa Arhine, Tadhg Ó Meachair, Javier Silva-Zurita, Ignacio Soto-Silva, Neddiel Elcie Muñoz Millalonco, Rytis Ambrazevičius, Psyche Loui, Andrea Ravignani, Yannick Jadoul, Pauline Larrouy-Maestri, Camila Bruder, Tutushamum Puri Teyxokawa, Urise Kuikuro, Rogerdison Natsitsabui, Nerea Bello Sagarzazu, Limor Raviv, Minyu Zeng, Shahaboddin Dabaghi Varnosfaderani, Juan Sebastián Gómez-Cañón, Kayla Kolff, Christina Vanden Bosch der Nederlanden, Meyha Chhatwal, Ryan Mark David, I. Putu Gede Setiawan, Great Lekakul, Vanessa Nina Borsan, Nozuko Nguqu, Patrick E. Savage. Globally, songs and instrumental melodies are slower and higher and use more stable pitches than speech: A Registered Report. Science Advances, 2024; 10 (20) DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adm9797

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Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. "Singing researchers find cross-cultural patterns in music and language." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 15 May 2024. <>.
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. (2024, May 15). Singing researchers find cross-cultural patterns in music and language. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 22, 2024 from
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. "Singing researchers find cross-cultural patterns in music and language." ScienceDaily. (accessed June 22, 2024).

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