This spring, in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, more than 100 scholars sound off on evolution and universality of music. I love the din. The academic discord gives way to a symphony of insights into the meaning of music in our lives. It may be a cliché to say music is the sound of our shared humanity. But it feels transcendent to be in tune with a person from another culture. There’s something alchemical about knowing we share the same biology. Originate from the same place. Share the same desires. But there’s more to the story. My recent adventures in the fields of music research have instilled in me, deeper than ever before, the feeling that music is what makes us human. I also have a new appreciation of what universality in music really means.
“We’ve shown you don’t need to be familiar with a particular culture to understand and enjoy its music,” Samuel Mehr, lead author on the paper, told me. Mehr is a research associate in the Department of Psychology at Harvard, where he is principal investigator at the Music Lab, a psychology laboratory studying music perception and music production. “You can find music meaningful and artistically interesting, and even glean reliable information, objective facts, from music made in different cultures. That’s really interesting socially because it shows there’s a common ground in this artistic product across cultures.”
Music is the stuff that really connects us. We don’t have to know or understand or even like another culture in order to dig their music. Even more universal than food it is music that brings us together. It has been thus for millenia.