These Countries Have the Most Unique Music in the World

A computer-based analysis of the world’s folk music found that musical traditions in some countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, differ from those elsewhere in the world.

“There's only one song,” Keith Richards, legendary songwriter, guitarist, and bon vivant of the Rolling Stones, once quipped. “Adam and Eve wrote it; the rest is a variation on a theme.”

Richards, who co-wrote tunes like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Wild Horses” with frontman Mick Jagger, knew a thing or two about how to pen a hit. And while he may have been downplaying the importance of originality, he was referencing the age-old notion that any piece of music, no matter how groundbreaking, owes a huge debt of gratitude to the songwriting that came before.

But not all types of music, from all countries, show the same amount of “variation” on that “theme.” Some kinds of music are simply more unique in a global context than others. And now, science can prove it — at least, when it comes to the world’s many different types of traditional folk music.

A new computational analysis of 8,200 field recordings from 137 countries found that some places simply boast more unique and unusual folk music than others when judged against the rest of the world’s output. The conclusion was based on the musical components of rhythm, melody, timbre, and harmony.

“We found countries that do seem to have really distinct music recordings,” Maria Panteli of Queen Mary's School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science told Seeker. “This is the first study to investigate outliers in world music with such a large scale.”

Panteli was the lead author of a new paper describing the research, which was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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Judging from the results, one region of the world in particular appears to stand out for its originality: sub-Saharan Africa.

Botswana, a land of mouthbows and syncopated dance numbers in which a group sings and claps together, turns out to be the country with the most unique folk music in the world, the study found.

In Botswana, a striking majority — 61 percent — of recordings analyzed by the researchers were found to be global “outliers” — that is, recordings that the computer said were distinctly and objectively different from what can generally heard elsewhere in the world.

Several countries in southern and western Africa also displayed more unique “outlier” recordings than other places, the study found.

Heavy hitters also included Ivory Coast (60 percent outliers), where singers are joined by woodwinds and guitars, and Chad (55 percent), where wind instruments are backed up by percussion.

An earlier 2015 analysis of hundreds of world music recordings led by Patrick Savage, a musicologist at the Tokyo University of the Arts, concluded that there are no “absolute universals” in music — that is, no properties that can be found in all music without exception. Rather, while there are exceptions to seemingly every musical rule, some characteristics are found in most types of music around the world.>

And to be sure, not all the world’s original folk music comes from Africa. Other countries displayed exceptionally distinctive musical traditions as well, like the unusual harmonies heard in music from Pakistan and Indonesia, Panteli said.

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Benin, with its solo Yoruba drumming, was found to have music with the most original rhythm and harmony. French Guiana, with its flute and vocal music, displayed most unique timbre (a term that refers to the quality of the sounds themselves, as opposed to their pitch or intensity). Zimbabwe, with its mbira, or thumb piano, had the most original melodies.

The audio analyzed in the study was made up of field recordings drawn from two large archives of world folk music: the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and the world and traditional music collection from the British Library.

The researchers used signal-processing tools to extract music information from audio recordings, data mining to quantify similarity and detect outliers, and spatial statistics to account for geographical correlation.

The study didn’t attempt to determine why these countries had developed musical styles that differed from what’s commonly found elsewhere in the world, Panteli said. Unearthing the roots of these differences remains a job for future study, added Panteli, whose paper was coauthored by her colleagues Emmanouil Benetos and Simon Dixon.

“The aim of the study wasn’t to prove historical or cultural influence,” she said, “but we do believe these findings could form a good basis for further investigation.”

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