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Participants in a Harvard study could distinguish lullabies, dance tunes, and healing songs from each other, no matter what culture the songs came from, suggesting that there are links between form and function in music that transcend cultural differences, researchers said.

The study was conducted by research associate Samuel Mehr, graduate student Manvir Singh, alumni Luke Glowacki and Hunter York, and associate professor Max Krasnow. Their study was published in the journal Current Biology last week.

“I think what this suggests is that there is something universal to human nature about the music that we produce,” Krasnow said.

The survey sampled 250 people in the United States, 250 in India, and 250 from 58 other countries, but all participants spoke English. Participants listened to 14-second clips of various types of songs from 86 mostly small-scale societies around the world, such as groups of hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers.


Krasnow said people scored high in identifying lullabies and dancing songs, and reasonably well in healing songs. But the participants had a harder time with love songs.

“Our speculation is that with love songs, what makes it a love song is the words being used,” Krasnow said. “There aren’t specific sounds that are associated with love songs.”

“The present research demonstrates,” the study said, “that cross-cultural regularities in human behavior pattern music into recurrent, recognizable forms while maintaining its profound and beautiful variability across cultures.”

In a second study, researchers surveyed a sample of 1,000 people to see if they noticed certain features in songs, such as number of singers, tempo, and rhythm. After combining the results with data from the first study, they determined such features do help people distinguish the purpose of songs.

“We all know how to sing a song if you want to calm a baby down; how to sing a song if you want to get somebody to dance to it,” Krasnow said. He said a fundamental part of human nature “links it all.”


In an upcoming study, Krasnow said, the group will survey 4,500 people in 45 countries — 100 from each — that do not speak English, to learn more.

Laney Ruckstuhl can be reached at laney.ruckstuhl@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laneyruckstuhl.