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How do songs and speech compare around the world? Northeastern music scientist contributes to groundbreaking study

Psyche Loui playing the violin.
Assistant Professor Psyche Loui contributed a Cantonese folk tune to a groundbreaking study comparing speech and music across 55 world cultures. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The Chinese folk tale “Butterfly Lovers” has been adapted for Chinese opera, television and film, and a folk tune of the legend has even inspired a violin concerto. 

Thanks to Northeastern University music professor Psyche Loui, the tale is also part of a groundbreaking new study that found common features of songs across many cultures.

The study, Loui says, united a large network of music science researchers, singers and musicians to look at how songs and speech compare around the world. 

Psyche Loui playing the violin.
In addition to being a music scientist, Loui is a Western classically trained violinist. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“I’ve been interested in these questions about song and speech and how they differ around the world and how musical structure differs from linguistic structure around the world more generally,” says Loui, an associate professor of creativity and creative practice in the Department of Music and director of the MIND (Music, Imaging and Neural Dynamics) Lab at Northeastern.

“It’s a general question that’s been out there for a long time,” says Loui, who was part of a team of musicians and music scientists recruited by her fellow researcher Patrick Savage, who conducted the study.

A musicologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, Savage recorded songs in 55 languages.

It is the second time that Loui and Savage collaborated. They co-authored a 2020 paper, “Music as a coevolved system for social bonding,” which established that one of the evolutionary reasons for music is to bring people together.

For the latest study, Loui recorded the “Butterfly Lovers” folk tune in Cantonese.

She did several takes. 

First, Loui sang the traditional song.

“I’m not even sure where it came from,” Loui says. “That’s the case with a lot of traditional music around the world. Nobody knows who wrote it, but we just recognize the tuning when we hear it.”

Loui then recorded herself saying the words of the song, followed by recording herself describing in Cantonese why she chose to contribute the song. 

Finally, she recorded herself playing that song on violin (Loui is a Western classically trained violinist).

Savage analyzed the songs to measure six features such as pitch and tempo. 

He found that songs across the cultures featured more pitch variation in song than in speech and slower pitch movement in song than in speech. 

Songs also tended to be a little bit louder and more extensive in the range of pitches they featured than speech.

“It seems like what I have noticed about singing and speaking are very common around the world,” Loui says. “It’s nice when these findings kind of fit with our intuitions, but it’s also good to know that what we’re doing is not a cultural anomaly.”