Love Songs Are Not Universal Across Cultures

Music seems a universal language of love, and love songs are cross-culturally recognizable and understandable. The writer John Anderer illustrates that it might be right to refer to the iconic song “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” a song by English rock band Joy Division, released in June 1980.

Is Music a Universal Language Across Cultures?

Researchers from Yale University generally agree with the statement that music is universal. Their research revealed that, with the notable exception of love songs, people all over the world can recognize the themes found in songs and music regardless of national boundaries or cultural backgrounds.

As Samuel Mehr, an assistant professor adjunct at the Yale Child Study Center and a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Auckland, says:

All around the world, people sing in similar ways. Music is deeply rooted in human social interaction.

Researchers studied over 5,000 people from 49 nations, asking them to listen to 14-second snippets of vocals from songs originating from many cultures around the world. The participants were people from a variety of cultures around the world, including individuals from relatively small cultural communities.

Researchers asked participants to listen to the songs in 31 various languages. Then they asked to rank how likely it is that each sample of music belongs to one of four musical types: lullabies, dance, “healing” music, or love music.

The authors conclude that listeners’ ratings were largely accurate, consistent with one another, and not explained by their linguistic or geographical proximity to the singer. This result showed that musical diversity is underlain by universal psychological phenomena.”

The lead author, Lidya Yurdum, explains that

“Our minds have evolved to listen to music. It is not a recent invention. But if we only study songs from the western world and listeners from the western world, we can only draw conclusions about the western world — not humans in general.”

What Kind of Music Do People Easier Recognize?

Results of the study showed that people from various cultures around the world relatively easily recognize lullabies and dance music and, to a lesser degree, “healing” music. However, they showed the least ability to identify love songs.

These are surprising results. Lidya Yurdum, a graduate student at the University of Amsterdam who works as a research assistant at the Yale Child Study Center, explains the results this way:

“One reason for this could be that love songs may be a particularly fuzzy category that includes songs that express happiness and attraction, but also sadness and jealousy. Listeners who heard love songs from neighboring countries and in languages related to their own actually did a little better, likely because of the familiar linguistic and cultural clues.”