Why Do Humans Sing? Traditional Music in 55 Languages Reveals Patterns and Telling Similarities

In a global study, scientists recorded themselves singing and playing music from their own cultures to examine the evolution of song

Latyr Sy, a Senegalese percussionist and singer, plays the drums.The human voice is perhaps the oldest and most diverse musical instrument we know, capable of both speech and song. But the question of why people make music has intrigued and puzzled scientists for centuries.

Is the art form simply an invention, like writing, produced so we can better express ourselves? Did acoustics arise so we could attract mates? Or ward off danger? Is there something deeply evolutionary about music inherent in each of us?

In a new global study, published Monday in the journal Science Advances, 75 researchers from 46 countries decided the best way to try to answer this question was by making melodies themselves. They recorded themselves singing traditional songs from their respective cultures, with 55 languages—including Hokkaido Ainu, Basque, Cherokee, Māori, Rikbaktsa, Ukrainian, Xhosa and Yoruba—represented in all.

Aleksandar Arabadjiev of Macedonia plays the Macedonian Duduk.
Aleksandar Arabadjiev of Macedonia played the kaval for the research. Patrick Savage, University of Auckland

Then, the researchers recorded themselves simply reciting their songs’ lyrics, without melody. In a third set of recordings, they played wordless versions of the songs on instruments, including the Azerbaijani tar, bamboo flute and clapping. They also described the songs with spoken words.

“I have downloaded all of their singing and speaking onto my phone,” senior author Patrick Savage, a comparative musicologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, tells Forbes Eva Amsen. “And sometimes I just put it on shuffle as I’m walking around. I really love listening to their songs.”

Savage and others analyzed the various recordings with two key questions in mind: Are any acoustic features reliably different between song and speech across cultures? And are any acoustic features reliably shared? They decided to test this by measuring six features across each song, which included tempo as well as pitch height and stability.

Many Voices: Song, speech, and instruments around the world (Ozaki et al., 2024, Science Advances)

When their analysis concluded, they were surprised to find a trio of consistencies: Singing tends to be slower than speaking, people produce more stable pitches while singing than while speaking and singing pitch is overall higher than speaking pitch.

“There are many ways to look at the acoustic features of singing versus speaking, but we found the same three significant features across all the cultures we examined that distinguish song from speech,” Peter Pfordresher, a psychologist at the University at Buffalo and a co-author of the study, says in a statement.

The study doesn’t provide a definitive answer for why humans sing, but the researchers’ leading hypothesis is that music promotes social bonding.

“Slower, more regular and more predictable melodies [may] allow us to synchronize and to harmonize and, through that, to bring us together in a way that language can’t,” Savage tells Scientific American’s Allison Parshall.

Gakuto Chiba of Japan plays the Tsugaru-shamisen
Gakuto Chiba of Japan plays the Tsugaru-shamisen, an instrument that shares a name with the genre of music it performs. Patrick Savage, University of Auckland

Lead author Yuto Ozaki, a musicologist from Keio University in Japan, tells the New York Times Carl Zimmer that singing in large groups could have been a way to encourage social cohesion—for community engagement or preparation for conflict—and it may have evolved separately from speech in that regard.

“There is something distinctive about song all around the world as an acoustic signal that perhaps our brains have become attuned to over evolutionary time,” Aniruddh Patel, a psychologist at Tufts University who was not involved in the study, says to the New York Times.

The researchers acknowledge that each language was represented with a very small sample size (most had only a single song) and that the scientists may have chosen simpler melodies that aren’t entirely representative of different genres. Some of the researchers who participated had extensive vocal or instrumental training or accolades—including Shantala Hegde, a Hindustani classical music singer and neuroscientist; Latyr Sy, a Senegalese drummer; and Gakuto Chiba, a national champion of Japan’s Tsugaru-shamisen instrument—so their music might be slightly different from that of a random sample of participants.

Nonetheless, another study of music conducted independently—which has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal but was posted this week on the pre-print server bioRxiv—identified similar patterns in songs representing 21 societies across six continents.

“It shows us that there may be really something that is universal to all humans that cannot simply be explained by culture,” Daniela Sammler, a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics who was not involved in the study, tells

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