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"Science Can Explain..."

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"Science Can Explain..."

You can guess already how much I dislike this kind of headline: Science Can Explain Why Some Songs Are Universal. (This might be behind the Wall Street Journal paywall, in which case you might try Googling the headline.)
To eliminate the biases of culture, sexism, music perception and Western scholarship, the researchers used a machine learning algorithm to sift musical data for significant patterns, cross-checked by musicologists and more than 30,000 listeners recruited through online crowdsourcing.
Those damned Western scholars! Always biased about something.
To start, they drew on ethnographic reports documenting 315 cultures around the world that had been collected at Yale University. For more precise analysis, they then focused on music behavior in 60 especially well-documented societies, coding mentions of singing for 60 variables ranging from the age and sex of the singer to the time of day the song was performed and whether the singer was in costume.
Clearly the age and sex of the singer, the time of day and what the singer wore are crucial elements telling us ... uh, what, exactly? Certainly nothing about universal elements in song.
“We wanted to build data sets that properly sample human cultural and geographic diversity,” said Manvir Singh, a cognitive and evolutionary anthropologist at Harvard University, who was a co-author of the study. “But there is no standard way to represent music across cultures.”
See, now, this seems like the foggiest of foggy thinking. Obviously that shibboleth of cultural progressivism, "diversity" has mucked up the project from the beginning (and another, sex, was also lurking). I wish I knew what could possibly be meant by "there is no standard way to represent music across cultures." Western music notation has become the international standard largely because there is no good alternative.
In sifting the data, the scientists asked music experts and people with no musical expertise to listen to snippets of songs and then categorize each as a lullaby, a dance, a healing song or a love song based on acoustic features such as tempo, rhythm and pitch. To cross-check the results, they also used a sorting algorithm to match music to behavior.
So they picked obvious and wide categories, all linked to obvious and wide categories of behaviour, crunched a lot of data and, I'm guessing because they don't share a single specific bit of results with us in this article, end up with the earth-shaking discovery that lullabies (the world over!) are usually quiet and soothing, while dances are more dynamic with a strong pulse. Amirite?

These pseudo-scientific studies always seem to fall into a few obvious and wide categories themselves. This one I think we can label as Scientists Contrive a Laborious and Data-Heavy Study to Conclude Something That Musicians Have Known for Millennia. In every one of these studies the two common elements are first, a disparagement of regular music scholarship and second, the surreptitious insertion of the necessary progressive demands of diversity, inclusiveness and equality.

After that we need a Brahms lullaby:


UPDATE: From a Colby Cosh column in the National Post I find what I think is a link to the study. Here is an abstract of their conclusions:
Music is in fact universal: It exists in every society (both with and without words), varies more within than between societies, regularly supports certain types of behavior, and has acoustic features that are systematically related to the goals and responses of singers and listeners. But music is not a fixed biological response with a single prototypical adaptive function: It is produced worldwide in diverse behavioral contexts that vary in formality, arousal, and religiosity. Music does appear to be tied to specific perceptual, cognitive, and affective faculties, including language (all societies put words to their songs), motor control (people in all societies dance), auditory analysis (all musical systems have signatures of tonality), and aesthetics (their melodies and rhythms are balanced between monotony and chaos). These analyses show how applying the tools of computational social science to rich bodies of humanistic data can reveal both universal features and patterns of variability in culture, addressing long-standing debates about each.
That just prompts a lot more questions than it answers! The fact that music exists in every society means that it is universal? Well, in that extremely broad sense, so is clothing, eating utensils, language, hierarchical structures and every other element and aspect of human behaviour. That is to say, the term "universal" in this context is simply meaningless. Music is used in diverse behavioral contexts. Yep. And if they had asked I could have told them without the effort of making the study. I have no idea what they could possibly intend with the reference to "formality," "arousal," and "religiosity," but presumably that is explained in the text. Here is a good one: "all musical systems have signatures of tonality." What exactly do they mean by that? All music is tonal? What is meant by "tonal"? Well, whatever is meant by it, it certainly does not include moment form, John Cage and myriads of other music. This just confirms my belief that "applying the tools of computational social science to rich bodies of humanistic data" will not only reveal nothing we didn't know before, but will be misleading and tend to deceive us about what we do and don't know. Aren't all these kinds of studies and projects just make-work for underemployed scientists?


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