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Music 'bonds social groups'

Published 29/06/2015

The findings suggest that communal singing and dancing is one of the primary functions of music
The findings suggest that communal singing and dancing is one of the primary functions of music

Music is not so much the food of love as nourishment for social cohesion, according to research.

Around the world, different styles of music contain common themes designed to bring people together, scientists have found.

The findings suggest that communal singing and dancing is one of the primary functions of music.

Dr Thomas Currie, from the University of Exeter, said: "Our findings help explain why humans make music. The results show that the most common features seen in music around the world relate to things that allow people to co-ordinate their actions, and suggest that the main function of music is to bring people together and bond social groups - it can be a kind of social glue.

"In the West we can sometimes think of music as being about individuals expressing themselves or displaying their talent, but globally music tends to be more of a social phenomena. Even here we see this in things like church choirs, or the singing of national anthems. In countries like North Korea we can also see extreme examples of how music and mass dance can be used to unite and co-ordinate groups."

The team analysed 304 recordings of diverse music from across the world, uncovering certain features that were consistently present including those relating to pitch and rhythm.

One of the most important was rhythms based on two or three beats, found in music from all regions sampled including North America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Lead author Pat Savage, a PhD student from the Tokyo University of the Arts, said: "In the old days, Western people believed that Western scales were universal. But then when we realised that other cultures had quite different ideas about scales, that led some people to conclude that there was nothing universal about music, which I think is just as silly.

"Now we've shown that despite its great surface diversity, most of the music throughout the world is actually constructed from very similar basic building blocks and performs very similar functions, which mainly revolve around bringing people together.

"My daughter and I were singing and drumming and dancing together for months before she even said her first words. Music is not a universal language ... music lets us connect without language."

The researchers adopted a new way of classifying music pioneered by American music collector and archivist Alan Lomax, whose music was extensively sampled by the musician Moby for his late nineties album Play.

They combined this with statistical analysis to reveal common features in music around the world.

The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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