A new tune in the story of human history: what music tells us about the past

Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour might be the latest chapter in pop history, but looking back into our musical past could also hold important clues about our culture and who we are as humans, according to a new study from The Australian National University (ANU).   

Utilising The  Global Jukebox - an online database of more than 5,000 songs - the study shows the unique capability of music to reveal new information about our cultural past and how songs sing to us over multiple generations.   

Lead author Dr Sam Passmore, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the ANU School of Culture, History and Language, said much like our genes and language, songs are often passed down from generation to generation.    

"Our parents sing songs to us, we sing those songs to our children, and them to theirs, creating a chain of inheritance and a preference for the musical styles we are accustomed to, such as particular rhythms or types of singing," he said.   

"Our study shows that music is another domain that can tell us interesting stories and add new threads to our view of human history.

"In theory, anything reliably inherited between generations records something about the past.  

"Sometimes we see the histories from different disciplines align, providing us with confidence about a series of events, and sometimes they do not align, identifying interesting divergence points in our past."  

Dr Passmore and his team utilised ’cantometric’ descriptions - a method of linking songs to social organisation - to identify the structure of musical diversity. This illustrated that similarity found in musical style is bound by geographic distance, as well as containing historical signals.   

"What we learnt is that musical history often diverges from language and genetic history and that it may be more aligned with other markers such as social organisation," Dr Passmore said.  

"We can see there is a strong link between the expansion of Bantu languages and the call-and-response style of singing in Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the chanted singing style of the Pacific, which has spread alongside the spread of Austronesian languages in the Pacific. 

"Our findings tell us more about the role of music in human society. It’s clear it’s more complex than it might appear at first glance." 

Senior author Dr Patrick Savage from the University of Auckland was surprised by the results. 

"My first research project found correlations between musical and genetic diversity in Taiwan, so I always thought we might find deeper correspondences throughout the world," he said.  

"Turns out I was wrong! But that’s how science works, and it’s maybe more interesting that music has its own story to tell." 

Senior author Dr Anna Wood said: "The Global Jukebox contains the largest, most representative and sophisticated database of performing arts now available. I am beyond thrilled that it could enable this meticulous piece of research daring to explore seminal questions of cultural evolution." 

This study was a collaboration between ANU, Keio University, The University of Auckland, The University of Zurich, Tel Aviv University, and the Association for Cultural Equity.   

The study has been published in Nature Communications.