Music has been called “the universal language of mankind.” Although contemporary theories of music evolution often invoke various musical universals, the existence of such universals has been disputed for decades and has never been empirically demonstrated. Here we combine a music-classification scheme with statistical analyses, including phylogenetic comparative methods, to examine a well-sampled global set of 304 music recordings. Our analyses reveal no absolute universals but strong support for many statistical universals that are consistent across all nine geographic regions sampled. These universals include 18 musical features that are common individually as well as a network of 10 features that are commonly associated with one another. They span not only features related to pitch and rhythm that are often cited as putative universals but also rarely cited domains including performance style and social context. These cross-cultural structural regularities of human music may relate to roles in facilitating group coordination and cohesion, as exemplified by the universal tendency to sing, play percussion instruments, and dance to simple, repetitive music in groups. Our findings highlight the need for scientists studying music evolution to expand the range of musical cultures and musical features under consideration. The statistical universals we identified represent important candidates for future investigation.The 18 universal features:
Pitch: Music tends to use discrete pitches (1) to form nonequidistant scales (2) containing seven or fewer scale degrees per octave (3). Music also tends to use descending or arched melodic contours (4) composed of small intervals (5) of less than 750 cents (i.e., a perfect fifth or smaller).
Rhythm: Music tends to use an isochronous beat (6) organized according to metrical hierarchies (7) based on multiples of two or three beats (8)—especially multiples of two beats (9). This beat tends to be used to construct motivic patterns (10) based on fewer than five durational values (11).
Form: Music tends to consist of short phrases (12) less than 9 s long.
Instrumentation: Music tends to use both the voice (13) and (nonvocal) instruments (14), often together in the form of accompanied vocal song.
Performance style: Music tends to use the chest voice (i.e., modal register) (15) to sing words (16), rather than vocables (nonlexical syllables).
Social context: Music tends to be performed predominantly in groups (17) and by males (18). The bias toward male performance is true of singing, but even more so of instrumental performance.The geographic distribution of the recordings analyzed:
The 304 recordings from the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music show a widespread geographic distribution. They are grouped into nine regions specified a priori by the Encyclopedia’s editors, as color-coded in the legend at bottom: North America (n = 33 recordings), Central/South America (39), Europe (40), Africa (21), the Middle East (35), South Asia (34), East Asia (34), Southeast Asia (14), and Oceania (54).