Musical (Nearly) Universals

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Human universals refer to aspects of culture, language, behavior, and psyche found in historically and geographically distributed human populations. These include, but are by no means limited to, tools and tool-making, grammar and syntax, myths and proverbs, social groups and kinship systems, mores and moral codes, facial recognition and psychological defenses, and gestures and emotional displays. Some of these are universals of classification, as opposed to universals of content: they share common patterns and purposes, but not necessarily individual elements.  Myths and languages, for example, take on many different forms and meanings, but their presence in widely varied societies make them universal categories.

Music is universal in this classificational sense. While a universally applicable definition of music seems impossible, no human society, past or present, has been without some type of culturally intelligible musical expression. Anthropologists and aestheticians highlight dissimilarities in styles and sounds, and modern music-makers push barriers beyond what is normatively called “music.” Yet within the overwhelming variety and complexity reside ubiquitous acoustic cues.

Psychological studies have uncovered an array of associations between general musical sounds (i.e., not tied to a specific genre or music-culture) and human responses. Loud music, for instance, tends to increase psychological arousal. Lower pitches are perceived as negative or aggressive, whereas higher pitches are heard as positive or submissive. Vibrato tends to evoke strong emotionality, while sudden or unexpected sounds tend to startle. Auditors synchronize body movements with music’s temporal organization. Cuteness is conveyed through certain resonant cavities (roughly 20 milliliters in volume), such as ocarinas and music boxes, which apparently trigger nurturing behaviors associated with infant vocalizations. Other cues suggest a link between vocal tendencies and musical expression, such as intensified speech (angry, fearful, happy, etc.) with faster tempi.

As this partial list suggests, similar responses to similar characteristics persist across the human experience, even as the music itself can differ dramatically. This seems to go against the “incommensurability thesis,” which posits that because objects, concepts, and behaviors have very specific meanings for the groups that produce them, they must therefore be utterly unique. However, without denying music’s irreducible diversity, associations appear to cut through culturally specific signatures. Underlying the wide range of rhythms, tonalities, modalities, and timbres are basic and essentially predicable emotional responses.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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