Can Humans Recognize a Song’s Intent Regardless of Language?

Universal Acoustic Patterns Help People Identify Music's Intent Regardless of Words

Two individuals listening to music from headphones and computer
A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that there is an association between how songs sound and their place in our emotional lives. (Luke Glowacki and Manvir Singh/Courtesy)

Quick Summary

  • Participants in study fared worse when identifying love songs

Singing transcends cultures. Across the globe, we sing to soothe infants, coordinate dance, promote healing and express love.

But are there universal acoustic patterns underlying different song types? And is it possible to recognize a song’s intent even if it’s sung in an unfamiliar language?   

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that there is an association between how songs sound and their place in our emotional lives. Sourcing songs from across the globe, Manvir Singh, an assistant professor of anthropology in the College of Letters and Science at UC Davis, and his colleagues found that people from different types of societies can successfully identify a song’s type by how it sounds, regardless of the language of its words. Singh co-authored the paper with lead author Lidya Yurdum of Yale University, among other researchers.

The findings imply that though music varies between cultures, it is grounded in some underlying universal perceptual phenomena.

“We find that people are really good at identifying dance songs and lullabies; they’re decent at identifying healing songs; and they can’t reliably identify love songs” — Singh

Building a global music database

The study hinged on a database that holistically reflects the diversity of cultures across the world. Starting in 2014, Singh and his colleagues built a collection of 118 songs — from 30 world regions and sung in over 75 languages — that reflected the social contexts of lullaby, love, dance and healing. The collection, known as the Natural History of Song Discography, has been analyzed by expert musicians to unravel each song’s underlying acoustical and musical structure.

The researchers exposed study participants to 14-second snippets of each song and then asked them, across a series of questions, to rate the behavioral context of the song. The study boasted 5,500 participants from Internet-connected industrialized nations and 116 participants from smaller-scale societies with limited access to global media. 

“We’re interested in this for a couple of reasons,” said Singh, who noted that the research seeks to resolve which of two perspectives better explains the development of music in human culture.

“One view is that music is mostly shaped by psychological mechanisms that are common across humanity, that we all share an underlying psychology that leads us to react to and produce music in similar ways,” he added. “The other extreme is that it’s much more culturally constrained, that the important factors determining how we produce and respond to music are not features of our shared psychology but our particular cultural experiences.”

What’s in a love song?

Although study participants fared worst at identifying love songs, Singh noted that, in previous research, their team has found that people recognize love songs as songs that told a type of story.

“They seemed to recognize that these songs have important lyrical content,” he said. “It raises the question, which is also something we want to investigate, of whether love songs communicate love less through melody and rhythm but more through their lyrical content.”

“Maybe lyrical content is much more important for the behavioral function of communicating love than for accompanying dance or soothing an infant or making somebody feel like they’re being healed,” he added.

Cultural proximity in song

The researchers also wondered if the cultural distance between participants and a song’s origin could predict the participants’ performance at identifying a song type.

“The cultural distance between the listener and the song did not have so much predictive power,” said Singh, who was surprised by the result. “There is an effect, but it is small.”

To further probe these questions about the universal perceptual phenomena underlying music, Singh and his colleagues are expanding their global music database to include more than 1,000 songs that span ten different song types.

“I really enjoy the treasure hunt dimension of these projects where you’re building this enormous corpus and you’re looking into the diversity of humanity,” Singh said. “I’m drawn to the interplay between universality and diversity. There’s something deeply satisfying about exploring underlying patterns that then manifest in all these diverse ways.”

This blog is reposted from the College of Letters and Science web site. The writer,, Greg Watry,  is content strategist & writer for the College of Letters and Science at UC Davis

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Read the full Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper here.

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