Heartbreaking: Music really is a universal language — except for love songs

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Joy Division’s iconic song “Love Will Tear Us Apart” may have been right all along. People often say music is universal, and researchers from Yale University support that saying — for the most part. Their study found that the themes in songs and music across borders and cultures are universally recognizable by people all over the world, with one major exception: love songs.

“All around the world, people sing in similar ways,” says senior author Samuel Mehr, an assistant professor adjunct at the Yale Child Study Center and a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Auckland, in a media release. “Music is deeply rooted in human social interaction.”

To investigate this topic, the research team assessed over 5,000 people from 49 nations. Each person listened to 14-second snippets of vocals from a bank of songs originating from a wide variety of cultures. The participants included not just people from the industrialized world, but more than 100 individuals from three small, relatively isolated communities of no more than 100 people.

Next, listeners had to rank the likelihood of each sample belonging to one of four musical types: dance, lullabies, “healing” music, or love music.

Notably, unlike most other studies that are conducted in one language, this project was put together using 31 languages. Still, regardless of the language used in a given survey, people from all over the world easily picked out dance music, lullabies, and, to a lesser extent, music composed to heal. However, the identification of love songs lagged behind all other categories.

For example, when responses were analyzed based on language groupings, it was discovered that 27 of the 28 groups correctly chose dance songs as being more appropriate for dancing than other songs. Also, all 28 of the groups were able to identify lullabies. In comparison, just 12 of the 28 groups were able to identify the love songs.

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So, what’s going on here? One would think topics like a broken heart or a summer fling are highly relatable no matter where one grew up. Researchers have a few ideas.

“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,” explains lead author Lidya Yurdum, who works as a research assistant at the Yale Child Study Center and is also a graduate student at the University of Amsterdam. “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.”

Besides love songs, study authors note that listeners’ “ratings were largely accurate, consistent with one another, and not explained by their linguistic or geographical proximity to the singer — showing that musical diversity is underlain by universal psychological phenomena.”

“Our minds have evolved to listen to music. It is not a recent invention,” Yurdum concludes. “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.”

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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About the Author

John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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