Social BRIDGES 5:

An international scientific forum on music as a universal language

The Social BRIDGES online conference “Do-re-mi DNA: the biological bases of music”, co-organized by the Institute of Psychology at the Universität der Bundeswehr München, took place on 19 – 20 January 2022, bringing together an international and interdisciplinary community of renowned scientists and young researchers for the fifth time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A cockatoo is showing off his dance moves to the Queen and Backstreet Boys hits, hundreds of thousands of people in Denmark including the Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen start their day in the lockdown with a morning karaoke show, a whole village community in southern Mali - old and young alike - gathers regularly to play music, sing and dance together. What is it that makes music a universally understandable language, connecting people around the world and even more, resonating with the animal kingdom as well? “Music is a fascinating power that brings us together and helps us acquire important findings on ourselves and our society”, says Prof. Merle Fairhurst, Chair for Biological Psychology, Universität der Bundeswehr München, the initiator and co-organizer of the online event.

A key to our behaviour

It is already widely known that humans share their sense of rhythm and ability to perceive melodies with various animal species, yet the research has lots of discoveries lying ahead on this field. Prof. Hugo Merchant of the National Autonomous University of Mexiko presented his research on neurophysiology of beat perception in primates, while Alexandre Celma-Miralles together with a team of young researchers working at the Pompeu Fabra University demonstrated evidence of rats’ ability to discriminate musical features of a tune. The abilities to predict and synchronise the beat though are exclusively human features, as Prof Anirudh Patel of Tufts University stated in his keynote talk. The feeling of reward resulting from a successful prediction might also be the key to understanding our enjoyment of music, says Prof. Psyche Loui representing Northeastern University. This statement was also supported in the research of Prof. Peter Vuust from Centre for Music in the Brain at the Aarhus University.

Thanks to the nature of our musicality, the interdisciplinary research on music leads to results that provide to be helpful in various areas of our life. The talks of Prof. Anna Fiveash from University of Lyon I and of Dr. Srishti Nayak from the Vanderbilt University focussed on the biological bases of musicality and language, looking forward to the possibilities that their findings might provide for the research and therapy of speech and language disorders. Observations on collective musical behaviour are a powerful instrument for understanding social interaction situations, as shown by Dr. Rainer Polak from the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics. In his talk, based on three decades of ethnographic fieldwork in Mali and providing insights into social learning through the example of growing into music and dance in village communities, the interdisciplinary expert stated that learning which takes place in social situations is anything but accidental, as it is stimulated by the environment; this is one of the important features that characterises a social environment, Dr. Polak concluded.

How music makes us stronger

Anyone who listens to their favourite tracks to relax after a stressful day or to get the most out of their training can confirm that music contributes to their well-being. A poster presentation by Andrea Schittenhelm representing the research team led by Prof. Annette Schmidt from Institute of Sport Science at the Universität der Bundeswehr München addressed this aspect of musical activities by looking into practical evidence on influence of different kinds of music on performance in sports as well as on following regeneration, analysing rowing training as an example. The study results confirmed correlations between listening to a faster beat music and achievements of a faster rowing tempo during training as well as positive effects of slower beat music which helps to drop the heart rate during the participants’ regeneration afterwards.

Various songs and melodies can help us achieve much more than support for physical strength and regeneration of an individual, though. Prof. Niels Christian Hansen from Centre for Music in the Brain at the Aarhus University who has been researching the worldwide phenomenon known as coronamusic within an international project can confirm this. The term “coronamusic” summarises the variety of music-related activities since the beginning of the COVID-19 global pandemic, especially during the lockdown periods, as well as tracks and playlists which have been composed or re-interpreted in the pandemic. By analysing self-reports as well as by putting together a global database on coronamusic across the most significant social media and streaming platforms, the experts have found out that making music, singing, listening to music but also discussing music on social networks contributed to the social and emotional coping potential in pandemic-induced stressful situations. People who experienced negative emotions used music for emotional regulation, while people who kept an overall positive attitude used it as a mean of establishing and maintaining social connections. The role of music in the corona crisis should be investigated even further so that our society can benefit from this knowledge when confronted with upcoming existential or societal crises in the future, the coronamusic expert concluded.

The phenomenon of the universality of music was approached in the joint study presentation by Yasemin Abra, Universität der Bundeswehr München, and Benjamin Rieger, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, through a comparison of lullabies, love songs and relaxing songs from all the continents which showed some differences but also an overall tendency to similarity. A further understanding of universal features of music that are relatable to people all over the world requires a deeper insight into the cultural evolution as well as into the cross-cultural diversity, according to the Social BRIDGES keynote speaker Prof. Patrick Savage from Keio University SFC: “Inclusive, multidisciplinary, global collaborations are the way forward!”

You are welcome to explore the findings of the past conferences on the YouTube channel and on the website of Social BRIDGES.

Conference summary in German language (by Olga Lantukhova) on the central news page of the Universität der Bundeswehr München and on the news page of the Institute for Psychology, Universität der Bundeswehr München


SocialBRIDGES5 Zoom.jpg

Prof. Merle Fairhurst, Jyothisa Mathew, Dr. Olga Lantukhova – Universität der Bundeswehr München, Institute of Psychology; Prof. Sonja Kotz – Maastricht University; Prof. Aniruddh Patel – Tufts University; Prof. Daniela Sammler - Max Planck Institute of Empirical Aesthetics; Prof. Hugo Merchant - National Autonomous University of Mexiko