DEC Colloquium

Musical representation across cultures

Practical information
12 January 2021

Discovering the universal features of human musicality is a prerequisite for explaining the biological and cultural evolution of music. What is universal about the psychological representation of music, and what varies? In this talk I will present analyses of the Natural History of Song Discography, which includes songs recorded in 86 mostly small-scale societies, and experiments using these songs. We find that acoustical forms of songs are predictive of their primary behavioral functions across cultures. Adult listeners worldwide are sensitive to this fact, in that they accurately infer behavioral functions even when the songs are from unfamiliar cultures and sung in unfamiliar languages. Such effects are not, however, merely a result of musical or cultural experience: both young children and infants show comparable effects, with little evidence for increases in sensitivity across ages. Moreover, high-level representations of musical behaviors are apparently enabled by lower-level processing of pitch and duration information into tonal and metrical representations. These cognitive phenomena may form a foundation for a universal psychology of music underlying culturally varying phenomena, such as musical aesthetics.