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New research has found that constraints in the way our brains work can shape the way people interact when creating music, influencing its evolution. The results are published today [22 March] in the journal Current Biology.

The research team made up of scientists from the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge, and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, used singing experiments to perform the largest ever cultural transmission study on the evolution of music.


Dr Manuel Anglada Tort
Dr Manuel Anglada Tort

Dr Manuel Anglada-Tort, Lecturer at the University of Oxford said: ‘Singing is a universal mode of musical communication, practiced by all cultures and ages, even in infants. For most of our history, oral transmission was the main mechanism by which songs were passed down human generations.


‘We believe that cross-cultural commonalities and diversities in human song emerged from this transmission process, but thus far it has been difficult to test how oral transmission shapes music evolution.’

The research team developed a novel method to simulate the evolution of music with singing experiments, where sung melodies are passed from one singer to the next. Over time, participants make errors in their efforts to replicate the melodies that they hear, gradually shaping the evolution of music in systematic ways. This approach allowed the researchers to study music evolution in unprecedented detail, quantifying the evolution of 3,424 melodies transmitted across 1,797 participants in the USA and India.

‘This work demonstrates the benefits of combining large-scale online data collection with innovative psychological paradigms to explore cultural transmission processes in unprecedented detail.’ Dr Anglada-Tort continues.

They found that oral transmission has profound effects on music evolution, revealing the emergence of musical structures that are consistent with widespread musical features observed across world cultures. In several controlled experiments, the researchers found that this happens because as humans, we are limited by our capacity to produce and process music. For example, musical elements that are difficult to sing such as large pitch intervals or to remember such as unfamiliar melodies, are consistently less likely to survive the transmission process.

Despite the infinite patterns in which music could be combined, the researchers found in practice, ‘human transmission biases’ shape vocal music towards those structures that are easier to learn and transmit. They found individual participant biases, including biological and cognitive factors, are an important bottleneck for evolution by oral transmission.

Dr Nori Jacoby, Research Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics who supervised the study said: ‘This work demonstrates the benefits of combining large-scale online data collection with innovative psychological paradigms to explore cultural transmission processes in unprecedented detail.’

The results provide a new understanding of how cultural transmission can amplify shared individual biases, contributing to the vast diversity of forms we observe in human songs cross-culturally. It is possible that similar mechanisms shaped the evolution of musical systems by early humans perceiving and creating music. These results could have implications for the study of other behaviours resulting from cultural transmission, such as bird song or human language.

Read more about Dr Manuel Anglada-Tort and his research.