The late American musicologist Alan Lomax’s attempt in the 1960s to find patterns by comparing the ways in which people sing in different folk traditions around the world — “Cantometrics” — was widely discredited by ethnomusicologists in the ensuing decades.
I’ve been learning about the Dutch geneticist Armand Leroi’s more recent work — which he calls “Neo-Cantometrics” — on applying the rules of evolutionary biology to Lomax’s theories. Leroi uses an algorithm known as “Grouper” and large amounts of computing power to hunt for patterns in the data sets containing just over 5000 folk songs from all over the globe collected by Lomax.
It’s fascinating stuff. In this 2007 video presentation, Leroi uses maps and song samples to illustrate similarities between the genetic makeup of geographically disparate groups of people and the vocal traits inherent in their singing.
I do feel somewhat skeptical of Leroi’s ideas. The findings in his paper on the subject are inconclusive. And he is quick to dismiss musicologists’ criticisms of Lomax’s work on the grounds that humanists are “frightened of numbers,” which is ridiculous.
Still, I’m curious about how I might apply some of Leroi’s research to work that I am doing on the evolution of singing culture. If there are patterns in the ways people use their voices to sing, then are there also patterns in the participation and consumption habits around vocal music? And how have these evolved over time in different parts of the world?
P.S. Leroi has conducted another interesting project around vocal music, in which he created an experiment which draws on Darwinian principles of natural selection to “compose” the “perfect song.” The DarwinTunes project received quite a bit of media attention last year. An interesting 30-minute radio segment about this work, which aired last year on the UK’s Radio 4, can be heard here.