This study explains why everyone likes the same songs

Ever wonder why so many people love “Let It Be” by The Beatles? Despite received wisdom, not every aspect that concerns taste is subjective. There are subtle articulations that vary on a cultural basis but the tenets of universal appeal are bolstered by the same behavioral principles.

A developed mammalian conscious appreciates craftsmanship, engagement, and illusions to things bigger than themselves. In fact, a new report published by a team of Harvard researchers determined that more than a quarter of all music produced in the entire world have those three things in common.

With a pool of 30,000 participants, each belonging to 60 distinct societies, the researchers devised six questions: Does music appear universally? What kinds of behavior are associated with song, and how do they vary among societies? Are the musical features of a song indicative of its behavioral context (e.g., infant care)? Do the melodic and rhythmic patterns of songs vary systematically, like those patterns found in language? And how prevalent is tonality across musical idioms?

From the report:

“For songs specifically, three dimensions characterize more than 25% of the performances studied: formality of the performance, arousal level, and religiosity. There is more variation in musical behavior within societies than between societies, and societies show similar levels of within-society variation in musical behavior.”

“Universality and diversity in human song”

To better formulate an unbiased conclusion, the data scientists crowdsourced recruitment of music-loving individuals from around the world.

Healing songs, dance music, love songs, and lullabies were consistently bound by the same features and patterns just as the cultures that enjoyed each was found to respond to the same fundamental triggers.

Through the lens of evolutionary biology, the human song is actually an adaptational by-product for effect, motor function, auditory perception, and language. Because music began as a developmental apparatus there are intrinsic elements that persist across cultures and societies. Today, its objective is no longer just a prototypical adaptive one of course, but one systematically related to the goals of the performer and their listeners.

The identical evolutionary markers that inspired melody now dictate the extent of its allure— updated to encompass language, motor control, auditory analysis, and aesthetics. Lyrics remain a vital feature of music across the world as does the dance. All musical systems evidence an appreciation for subtly in signature and tonality.  All music systems utilize the agents of harmony and chaos when constructing melody and rhythm.

“We conducted a natural history of song: a systematic analysis of the features of vocal music found worldwide. It consists of a corpus of ethnographic text on musical behavior from a representative sample of mostly small-scale societies, and a discography of audio recordings of the music itself. We then applied tools of computational social science, which minimize the influence of sampling error and other biases,” the report continued. “Music is universal but clearly takes on different forms in different cultures. To go beyond these unexceptionable observations and understand exactly what is universal about music, while circumventing the biases inherent in opportunistic observations, we assembled databases that combine the empirical richness of the ethnographic and musicological record with the tools of computational social science.”

Intimations forwarded in the field of evolutionary biology have a way of deflating vehicles of expression, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Understanding that predilections aren’t randomly assigned by some all-knowing taste-maker but instead developed overtime on behalf of practical means, dissolves barriers and humanizes our heroes.

Even though we’ll never mold anything half as compelling as the worst of Mendelssohn, we can take solace in the fact that the same muse that stirred within the German polymath is just as receptive within us all. There is, in fact, a science to appeal and we’re all unwitting case studies.