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Can you tell what a song is used for when it is not in your language or from your culture? A new study finds that worldwide, people are pretty good at recognizing when an unfamiliar song is used for dancing, soothing babies, or healing sickness. And it does not matter if the song comes from a nearby culture or a far away one. Music around the world is diverse, but there are thus some universal things about it that we all seem to get.

Singing is something all human cultures do, and it comes in many distinctive styles and forms around the world. But certain types of songs share acoustic characteristics. For example, songs for dancing are often loud with a strong beat, while lullabies are usually soft and melodic. Previous research suggested that people can pick up on these musical cues to understand the purpose of a song, regardless of the language or culture it comes from. But we were not sure yet if these musical interpretations were universal, because the previous studies focused only on English-speaking people and the Western world.

How well can people guess the meaning or purpose of unfamiliar songs?

The way we make music and what it means to us might come from our biology: how our minds have developed over the course of human evolution and across our own lifespans. This limits how music evolves in diverse cultures. So, even though music can be different in various places, it still has some common features because of our shared human nature. These common features help us understand what a song might be about, even if we have never heard it before.

In a new study, a team of international researchers asked over 5,000 people in 48 societies to guess what songs from unfamiliar languages and cultures were used for. Participants came from societies with lots of internet and technology and also from smaller, isolated societies with less access to global media. The researchers played them songs that were used for dancing, soothing a baby, healing the sick and expressing love.

Geographic distribution of participants

People around the world can figure out the purpose of the song

People from both types of societies were surprisingly good at figuring out if a song was for dancing, soothing a baby, or healing the sick, but struggled with identifying love songs. Living closer to where the song was from or speaking a similar language helped listeners guess the song’s purpose a little more accurately, but this boost was negligible: the real driving factor was the acoustic features of the song, which are shared universally.

The researchers conclude that this tells us that there are some simple aspects about understanding music that everyone seems to get, no matter where they are from. ‘This research confirms what we suspected based on previous research with English-speakers in industrialised countries’, tells one of the lead researchers Lidya Yurdum of the University of Amsterdam. ‘It doesn’t matter where you live or what language you speak, or if you have never been exposed to foreign music. People around the world “understand” certain types of songs. We think it’s because we all share something fundamental in our biology that shapes how humans make music.’


For questions please contact: Lidya Yurdum, email:

Article details

Lidya Yurdum, Manvir Singh, Luke Glowacki, Thomas Vardy, Quentin D. Atkinson, Courtney B. Hilton, Disa Sauter, Max M. Krasnow, and Samuel A. Mehr (2023), ‘Universal interpretations of vocal music’, PNAS, Vol. 120, Nr. 37