Music's Universal Elements Make 'Mind-Hacking' Pop Songs Possible

Scientists discover elements of songs that are recognizable around the globe.

Camilla Cabello/YouTube

The wonderful website Radio Garden, launched in 2016, allows users to spin a globe and tune into any one of thousands of radio stations broadcasting around the world, from the U.S. to Ghana to New Zealand. It was created to help listeners connect to distant cultures, whose music, in many cases, sounds totally different from what one might be used to. But according to new research from Harvard University psychologists, even the most distant radio stations will offer something familiar, no matter who — or where — the listener is.

Publishing their study in the journal Current Biology on Thursday, researchers Manvir Singh, Ph.D., and Sam Mehr, Ph.D., report that all music, no matter where it’s from, shares fundamental properties that signal what kind of song it is — whether it’s meant for listeners to dance to, relax to, or fall in love to. That’s why, Singh explained in an e-mail to Inverse, the people who took part in their experiments were able to identify love songs, dance songs, and healing songs, even if those songs originated from cultures they knew nothing about.

“[We] can infer from these findings that all around the world, you can play certain musical stimuli and we expect those to get people to dance; similarly, a very similar set of musical stimuli can be used to get infants to fall asleep across vastly-diverging human populations,” he said.

It may be hard to believe, considering how different a song like this Ainu Lullaby from Hokkaido, Japan, sounds compared to the Highland Scots love song from Castlebay, Barra, featured below.

But in the team’s experiments, in which they had participants listen to snippets of traditional songs from various hunter-gatherer, pastoralist, and subsistence farming-based societies around the world, people were able to distinguish song types based on sound alone. In the first part of the experiment, 750 internet users from 60 different countries, evaluating 14-second sound bites from those songs, were reliably able to evaluate whether a song was meant for dancing, soothing a baby, healing illness, expressing love, mourning the dead, or telling a story.

The follow-up experiment was meant to figure out how, exactly, people were able to pick up on the functions of those songs. As Singh explains, the experiment involved asking 1,000 participants, from India or the U.S., to listen again to the song snippets and try to identify not only the song ‘function’ but also various contextual and subjective elements within them, like the gender and number of singers; the song’s melodic and rhythm complexity; and its level of arousal, its valence, and its pleasantness. The idea was that perhaps certain combinations of those elements made up a sort of fundamental ‘formula’ for a certain type of song.

Participants listened to snippets of songs taken from cultures all over the world.

Singh, Mehr, et al.

For some types of songs, the hypothesis was right. “Lullabies seem to have fewer singers than other songs, fewer instruments, lower melodic complexity, lower rhythmic complexity, slower tempo, less steady of a beat, lower arousal (exciting-ness), lower valence (happy-ness), and lower pleasantness,” says Singh. “Dance songs, incidentally, show the opposite trend for all of these features (e.g., more singers, more instruments, more melodic and rhythmic complexity, etc.).”

They couldn’t really figure out what defined healing songs or love songs, however, even though these types of songs were also identifiable. More detailed analyses of the characteristics of these song types, Singh says, are already underway.

The idea that a song can be divorced from its culture of origin and geography and still stir up the same feelings in listeners around the world suggests that it taps into some fundamental part of human nature that we all share. Whether that’s something psychological or something even more elemental, like our physiology, however, remains an open question, which the researchers continue to ponder.

“It seems most plausible that these similarities are due to our shared psychologies, themselves underpinned by commonalities in neurophysiology,” says Singh, though he notes we really don’t have an explanation for these shared responses, from an evolutionary perspective.

While we may not fully understand them yet, the paper’s findings shed some light on why, if you spend enough time listening to world music, on Radio Garden or elsewhere, you may get the sense that pop music everywhere is converging. If there are elements of music that universally evoke the same response, then it makes sense that a producer (or even a robot) could identify and deliberately incorporate those elements into a new song to try and reach a wider audience.

“It does seem that, if you want to make a song that gets people dancing all around the world, this kind of research helps identify those common denominators that should ignite people everywhere,” says Singh.

Already, he points out, we’re seeing that in contemporary music; with artists mixing and remixing elements from genres as varied as Bollywood, underground dancehall and indie pop to achieve the “singular goal of getting people to love it.”

It’s only conjecture, but Singh says he wouldn’t be surprised if “contemporary pop music, especially for dancing, hasn’t already stumbled upon those features that work best to hack our brains and make us grin and move.”

“That’s a recipe for building mind-hacking, gratifying music.”

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