Imagine that you’re a researcher who has unlimited time and resources, and a time machine that can travel anywhere in the world. You use these wondrous gifts to get a recording of every song that has ever been sung, whether by people in big cities or those in small hunter-gatherer groups. You play these recordings to random volunteers, and ask them to guess the behaviors that were associated with each tune. Was the song used for dancing? For soothing a baby? For healing illness? Could people guess what songs are for by their sound alone, without any knowledge about their cultural context?
When Samuel Mehr and Manvir Singh posed this scenario to 302 cognitive psychologists, who study how people think, around 73 percent predicted that the listeners would make accurate guesses. But when the duo surveyed 206 ethnomusicologists, who study the music of different cultures, just 29 percent felt the same. The two groups of scholars largely disagreed, and Mehr and Singh think the ethnomusicologists are wrong. Music, they say, does have certain universal features that allow even untrained ears to predict its function.
As cognitive psychologists themselves, they’re hardly impartial, but they’ve backed up their claim with an experiment that’s similar to their hypothetical one. Even without unlimited resources and an omniversal traveling machine, they managed to amass songs from 86 cultures around the world—all small-scale societies, like hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers. Their collection—the Natural History of Song discography—represents music of four types: dances; lullabies; expressions of love; and healing songs intended to cure the sick in ceremonies.