Researchers Use eHRAF World Cultures to Demonstrate “Universality and Diversity in Human Song”

Khaira ArbyDoes vocal music, or song, exist across all known human cultures? What behaviors are commonly associated with it? Do the musical features of a song predict the behavioral context in which it is performed?

Samuel A. Mehr, a Research Associate in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, together with an interdisciplinary team of colleagues at various institutions, seeks to answer these questions and others in a research article published in a recent issue of Science Magazine. The authors note that claims about the universality of music, and about universals in music, while often asserted, assumed, or contested, have never been tested systematically. Attempting to overcome “the methodological difficulty of comparing the music of different societies” (1), Mehr and his colleagues constructed a The Natural History of Song (NHS) collection. NHS is comprised of two datasets: NHS Ethnography and NHS Discography.

NHS Ethnography

The NHS Ethnography dataset was constructed through extensive use of eHRAF World Cultures, particularly a stratified random sample of sixty cultures known as the Probability Sample Files (PSF) contained within eHRAF.[i] The team searched the PSF for ethnographic descriptions indexed under the Outline of Cultural Materials subject identifier “Music ” in conjunction with certain keywords indicating that the musical behavior being described was a song (e.g., “song”; “singers”). Song was chosen, in part, because its performance does not require technology (meaning that it could exist in any human culture). The researchers coded the search results for details regarding the performances, the performers, and their audiences.

The Universality of Song and Its Behavioral Contexts

Music and song appear to be universal. Mehr and colleagues found music (of any kind) described in 309/315 of the societies in eHRAF World Cultures; but using outside ethnographic sources, found evidence of music in the six remaining societies as well. The presence of song was found in all 60 societies of the PSF.

Beyond the question of universality, the researchers were also interested in the behavioral contexts in which song performances occurred. The authors propose that music is “the product of underlying psychological faculties that make certain kinds of sound feel appropriate to certain social and emotional circumstances” (3), leading them to suppose that:

what should be universal about music is not specific melodies or rhythms but clusters of correlated behaviors, such as slow soothing lullabies sung by a mother to a child or lively rhythmic songs sung in public by a group of dancers. (3)

What are the general contexts for song? Mehr and colleagues searched the scholarly literature and surveyed 940 scholars representing the fields of music, psychology, and cognitive science and came up with 20 predicted contexts for song. Then, to test these predictions, Mehr and colleagues searched the PSF dataset for evidence of the 20 associations between song and other ethnographically observed behaviors. Using a  combination of OCM subject identifiers and keywords, their results reveal that song is associated with 14/20 of the predicted behavioral contexts, including dance[ii], infancy (infant care)[iii], healing[iv], and religious activity[v].

Understanding Cross-Cultural Variation in Song


The algaita is a wind instrument found amongst the Kanuri and elsewhere in West Africa.

Using Bayesian statistical techniques, the researchers found that three dimensions combine to account for nearly one quarter of the cross-cultural variation in musical behavior described in the ethnographic record: formality (15.5%), arousal (6.2%), and religiosity (4.9%). Curious as to how well these dimensions captured differences in the behavioral contexts of song, Mehr and colleagues searched NHS Ethnography for descriptions of four common song types across cultures—dance, healing, love, and lullaby—and coded the descriptions from “high” to “low” for the three dimensions (e.g., passages describing large ceremonial performances were coded as “high formality” and those describing small nonceremonial performances were coded as “low formality”). The researchers found that: dance songs are associated with high-formality, high-arousal, low-religiosity events; healing songs are associated with high-formality, high-arousal, high-religiosity events; love songs are associated with low-formality, low-arousal, low-religiosity events; and lullabies are associated with low-formality and low-arousal events.[vi]

In addition to cross-cultural regularities, the findings also show that song is diverse across cultures, confirming a view long held by the majority of ethnomusicologists (1). For example, the authors point to the Kanuri as an example of a culture with fewer than average formal musical behaviors and to the Akan as an example of a culture with greater than average religious musical behaviors. But the differences between cultures are not that large and, in fact, there is more variation within societies than between societies along the three dimensions.

NHS Discography

Also interested in the musical features of song across cultures, the researchers created a second dataset, NHS Discography, comprised of field recordings from 86 mostly small-scale societies. The four song types mentioned above—dance, healing, love, and lullaby—were selected for inclusion in the dataset.

Mehr and colleagues used NHS Discography to investigate the degree to which the musical features of a song could be used to predict the behavioral context in which it is performed (e.g., does “tempo … [help] distinguish dance songs from lullabies while failing to distinguish lullabies from love songs”?) (12). The researchers conducted an online experiment in which 29,357 participants were asked to guess the behavioral context (dance, healing, love, or lullaby) in which the song in the recording was being performed. Participants included “expert” listeners with prior musical study and exposure to world music and “naïve” listeners without such a background. Expert and naïve listeners alike were able to correctly guess the context of the performance at better than chance rates. That the songs are from cultures and in languages there were unfamiliar to the respondents is evidence of a cross-cultural association between the musical features of a song and the context in which it is performed. The result also suggests the possibility of cognitive adaptations related to the acoustic features of song. As the participants were from Western societies, the authors would like to see if a similar test amongst non-Western listeners would yield similar results.

Mehr and his colleagues also conducted several exploratory analyses in order to demonstrate some of the other ways that researchers could utilize the NHS Discography dataset. One such analysis establishes the widespread-to-universal presence of tonality across cultures, hinting at a universal musical grammar and underlying cognitive adaptations.

A New Science of Music

DarwinIn applying the tools of computational social science to subjects and data historically studied in the humanities, this article is part of a larger endeavor to bring about the consilience (“jumping together”) of the biological sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities (Wilson 1998). Such efforts often combine scientific methods with insights derived from evolutionary theory to help explain human social behavior. A small fraction of this type of work focuses on the arts, including empirical studies of dance (e.g., Hugill et al. 2011), literature (e.g., Gottschall 2005), and the visual arts (e.g., Clegg, Nettle, and Miell 2011). Such research shows that the sciences have much to offer those subjects typically studied as humanities and that those subjects deserve attention from the larger scientific community.


Clegg, Helen, Daniel Nettle, and Dorothy Miell. 2011. Status and mating success amongst visual artists. Frontiers in Psychology 2: 310. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00310.

Gottschall, Jonathan. 2005. “Quantitative Literary Study: A Modest Manifesto and Testing the Hypotheses of Feminist Fairy Tale Studies.” In The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, edited by J. Gottschall and D. S. Wilson, 199–224. Chicago: Northwestern University Press.

Hugill, Nadine, Bernhard Finka, Nick Neave, Anna Besson, and Laurel Bunse. 2011. “Women’s Perception of Men’s Sensation Seeking Propensity from Their Dance Movements.” Personality and Individual Differences 51 (4): 483–487. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2011.05.002.

Mehr, Samuel A., Manvir Singh, Dean Knox, Daniel M. Ketter, Daniel Pickens-Jones, S. Atwood, Christopher Lucas, Nori Jacoby, Alena A. Egner, Erin J. Hopkins, Rhea M. Howard, Joshua K. Hartshorne, Mariela V. Jennings, Jan Simson, Constance M. Bainbridge, Steven Pinker, Timothy J. O’Donnell, Max M. Krasnow, and Luke Glowacki. 2019. “Universality and Diversity in Human Song.” Science 366 (6468): eaax0868. doi:10.1126/science.aax0868.

Wilson, Edward O. 1998. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.


[i] The PSF were created by dividing the world into culture areas and randomly choosing one case from a list of societies that met certain data quality control criteria. PSF is one of four different samples by which search results can be filtered in eHRAF World Cultures.

[ii] Corresponding to OCM identifier Dance

[iii] Corresponding to OCM identifier Infant Care.

[iv] Corresponding to OCM identifiers Magical and Mental Therapy; Shamans and Psychotherapists; Medical Therapy and Medical Care.

[v] Corresponding to OCM identifiers Shamans and Psychotherapists; Religious Experience; Prayers and Sacrifices; Purification and Atonement; Ecstatic Religious Practices; Revelation and Divination; and Ritual

[vi] An interactive version of the figures visualizing these data can be found at