Universal interpretations of vocal music.
Despite the variability of music across cultures, some types of human songs share acoustic characteristics. For example, dance songs tend to be loud and rhythmic, and lullabies tend to be quiet and melodious. Human perceptual sensitivity to the behavioral contexts of songs, based on these musical features, suggests that basic properties of music are mutually intelligible, independent of linguistic or cultural content. Whether these effects reflect universal interpretations of vocal music, however, is unclear because prior studies focus almost exclusively on English-speaking participants, a group that is not representative of humans. Here, we report shared intuitions concerning the behavioral contexts of unfamiliar songs produced in unfamiliar languages, in participants living in Internet-connected industrialized societies (n = 5,516 native speakers of 28 languages) or smaller-scale societies with limited access to global media (n = 116 native speakers of three non-English languages). Participants listened to songs randomly selected from a representative sample of human vocal music, originally used in four behavioral contexts, and rated the degree to which they believed the song was used for each context. Listeners in both industrialized and smaller-scale societies inferred the contexts of dance songs, lullabies, and healing songs, but not love songs. Within and across cohorts, inferences were mutually consistent. Further, increased linguistic or geographical proximity between listeners and singers only minimally increased the accuracy of the inferences. These results demonstrate that the behavioral contexts of three common forms of music are mutually intelligible cross-culturally and imply that musical diversity, shaped by cultural evolution, is nonetheless grounded in some universal perceptual phenomena.