The Exceptions and the Rules in Global Musical Diversity

Sam Passmore, Patrick E. Savage

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    Global music diversity is a popular topic for both scientific and humanities researchers, but often for different reasons. Scientific research typically focuses on the generalities through measurement and statistics, while humanists typically emphasize exceptions using qualitative approaches. But these two approaches need not be mutually exclusive. Using a quantitative approach to identify musical outliers and a qualitative discussion of the most unusual songs, we can combine scientific and humanities approaches to unite knowledge on musical diversity. Objectively defining unusual music is a delicate task, having historically been subject to Eurocentric approaches. Using the Global Jukebox, a dataset containing almost 6,000 songs from over 1,000 societies coded on 37 “Cantometric” variables of musical style, we designate the unusualness of a song as the frequency of its coded variables relative to their regional frequency. Using quantitative metrics to identify outliers in musical diversity, we present a qualitative discussion of some of the most unusual individual songs (from a Panpipe ensemble from Kursk, Russia), and a comparison of unusual repertoires from Malay, Kel Aïr, and Moroccan Berber musical cultures. We also ask whether unusual music is the result of unusual social organisation or isolation from other groups. There is weak evidence that the unusualness of music is predicted by kinship organisation and cultural isolation, but these predictors are heavily outweighed by the finding that unusual songs are best predicted by knowing the society they come from – evidence that quantitatively supports the existence of musical style.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)47
    JournalJournal of Cognition
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 2023

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