Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Itetem ta humgopak...Altogether now!...

If you read the paper on musical diversity within and between cultures in todays Proc R Soc, you will search in vain for any idea of what the music actually sounds like. So I had a google. And then I had a totally unrigorous ponder on what I found (I also looked in vain for any proper coverage of this work).

Tom Rzeszutek and his colleagues analyse a corpus of folk songs from '16 Austronesian-speaking aboriginal populations from Taiwan and the northern Philippines'. These include the Paiwan...

Here's a snippet of a rather nice Paiwan love song

What does the fact that this sits so easily on the western ear say about musical diversity - perhaps that the total range of musical possibilities is actually quite small, and that cultures explore musical space (saturate diversity, if you like) quite quickly? Does this also mean that there's a lot of convergent evolution in music, with the same tricks popping up often in different cultures?

Here's another...

Sounds pretty similar to me.

They also analyse the songs of the Ifugao...

What does the fact that the people behind this arrangement can slather their aboriginal song in a jumbo helping of (country and) western cheese, but still recognize it as something Ifugao, say about the features of music that are most important in placing it in a certain culture? And what does the fact that music hybridizes so easily say about the generation and meaning of musical diversity?

The authors quantify the songs using a technique of their own invention called 'CantoCore', based on the cantometrics approach devised in the 1960s by the mighty Alan Lomax. CantoCore 'codes 26 characters related to song structure, including rhythm, pitch, syllable, texture and form'. They than measure the distance between songs by adapting a technique used to measure genetic distance - borrowing the tools of phylogenetics.

When they do this, they find that there's much more musical variation within cultures than between them. Within culture variation accounts for a whopping 98% of the total, in fact.

The 2% difference between cultures is still statistically significant, though. After all, it's easy to distinguish Cuban music from gypsy music, from Indian music, and so on. I'd guess that some aspects of music must be more diagnostic than others to our ears. (I think that CantoCore only analyses songs, so out in the real world you can also throw in instrumentation as a means of recognition.)

What I want to know is if some cultures have more diverse music than others. That's true of genetic diversity, and it reflects our species' history.

So, just as Africans are most genetically diverse, and the rest of us are, give or take, a subset of them, is the same true of music? In Subsaharan Africa, cultural diversity mirrors biodiversity - that is, the places with the most species per square mile also have the highest density of different languages. So perhaps the same goes for tunes.

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