Form and Function in Human Song

Samuel A. Mehr, Manvir Singh, Hunter York, Luke Glowacki, Max M. Krasnow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

90 Scopus citations


Humans use music for a variety of social functions: we sing to accompany dance, to soothe babies, to heal illness, to communicate love, and so on. Across animal taxa, vocalization forms are shaped by their functions, including in humans. Here, we show that vocal music exhibits recurrent, distinct, and cross-culturally robust form-function relations that are detectable by listeners across the globe. In Experiment 1, internet users (n = 750) in 60 countries listened to brief excerpts of songs, rating each song's function on six dimensions (e.g., “used to soothe a baby”). Excerpts were drawn from a geographically stratified pseudorandom sample of dance songs, lullabies, healing songs, and love songs recorded in 86 mostly small-scale societies, including hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and subsistence farmers. Experiment 1 and its analysis plan were pre-registered. Despite participants’ unfamiliarity with the societies represented, the random sampling of each excerpt, their very short duration (14 s), and the enormous diversity of this music, the ratings demonstrated accurate and cross-culturally reliable inferences about song functions on the basis of song forms alone. In Experiment 2, internet users (n = 1,000) in the United States and India rated three contextual features (e.g., gender of singer) and seven musical features (e.g., melodic complexity) of each excerpt. The songs’ contextual features were predictive of Experiment 1 function ratings, but musical features and the songs’ actual functions explained unique variance in function ratings. These findings are consistent with the existence of universal links between form and function in vocal music. Mehr and Singh et al. show form-function associations in vocal music detectable by listeners worldwide. People in 60 countries heard songs from 86 societies. They inferred the functions of dance, lullaby, and healing from song forms alone. Ratings were nearly identical across listener cohorts and were guided by the contextual and musical features of the songs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)356-368.e5
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 5 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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