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Uncover Your Musical DNA by Exploring “The Global Jukebox”

On Nov. 2, the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE published the scientific paper, “The Global Jukebox: A Public Database of Performing Arts and Culture,” spearheaded by Dr. Anna L. Wood (the Association for Cultural Equity at Hunter College, NY), and co-written/edited by Patrick E. Savage (Keio University, Fujisawa, Japan) and 17 colleagues. It is the first time this kind of data is available publicly online for all – “a deep dive into the massive study of expressive traditions undertaken in the 1960s-1980s by Alan Lomax, Victor Grauer, and Conrad Arensberg via statistical analyses of folk song styles across the globe.”

The Global Jukebox homepage
The Global Jukebox homepage

For decades, Lomax and his colleagues developed coding systems to analyze and compare distinguishing features of thousands of recording/film examples of singing, musicianship, dancing, and public speaking events from all over the world. This cross-cultural framework perspective carried the study into the 1990s, when Lomax and Michael Del Rio prototyped a “Global Jukebox,” “an interface enabling users to locate themselves and their forebears on a musical map, to discover their ‘musical DNA,’ and find the closest matches to their favorite songs.” “After many decades, the Jukebox and its priceless recordings and accompanying scientific data are finally available for all,” says coauthor Patrick Savage. “This includes researchers seeking to understand cultural diversity, members of the original communities wanting to strengthen their traditions, and the general public exploring the beauty and diversity of all the world’s music.” 

Lomax and Arensberg’s findings drew a considerable amount of criticism when they were first published due to how their “raw Cantometric data and sample were never made public for others to examine and reanalyze. The public release of the Global Jukebox now largely solves this problem.” A preliminary beta version of this program was released in 2017, and even generated attention among the public, as well as The New York Times and Rolling Stone. However, its quality had not been fully reviewed until 2021 when tons more data was added: “Between 2017 and 2021, the raw data and metadata of Cantometrics were processed for full publication: descriptive data on each song and society were revised and expanded with song details, lyrics, genres and instruments, and nearly two thousand missing and truncated audio files were added.”

Alan Lomax working on his music database in 1992
Alan Lomax working on his music database in 1992, Photo Courtesy of G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times

How else does this jukebox, “a global database of the performing arts,” work? It is a dataset of 5,776 traditional songs from 1,026 societies that is cross-indexed with the Database of Peoples, Languages, and Cultures (D-PLACE) that allows researchers to reference and test different hypotheses of aesthetic patterns and coevolutions, such as: instrumentation, conversation, popular music, vowel and consonant placement, breath management, social factors, and societies, which are also “available in open access, downloadable format, linked with streaming audio recordings to the maximum extent allowed while respecting copyright and the wishes of culture-bearers.”

“No other database of human culture like it exists, and it is still growing,” says Dr. Anna L. Wood, who is the daughter of one of the Jukebox’s creators, Alan Lomax. “We were excited to find some very strong relationships between music and culture, by retesting variables for five measures that had been identified in the original research as indicators of social complexity in pre-industrial societies.” She cites examples of how: the repetitiveness of song lyrics culturally coincides with agricultural production, orchestras become more complex when authority comes from outside of the community, and intervals in melody tend to be smaller in larger communities. Wood also mentions that these results are also due to other factors, but these findings do raise conversations about what musical aesthetics and their connections can tell about our evolution of culture. “I believe, however, that now we can confidently say that musical style is responsive to social organization, and also draws upon the aesthetic traditions of our forebears and neighbors,” she says. 

Discover Your Musical Roots in the Global Jukebox

One aspect of this project Dr. Wood is particularly passionate about is public access. “Access is so important,” she says. “Above all else, my father wanted people who are being cut off from their ancestral cultures–drowned, as under the waters of a new dam– to hear their songs and to find their aesthetic footprint in their own ‘big traditions’. So while the Global Jukebox is highly technical, it is also a place everyone can explore. Our job at the Association for Cultural Equity is to find more ways of inviting people in.” One way they will go about this in the future is by adding more locations/demographics that are yet unaccounted for, as well as adding as much information to the database as they can find. 

The paper’s conclusion states that the Global Jukebox data’s full publication “represents the culmination of 60 years of research by one of the world’s most influential scholars of music. We are making these data publicly available in order to encourage their use, improvement, and expansion through diverse intercultural and interdisciplinary collaborations. We also hope to encourage further scientific research into music, dance, speech and other arts as primary rather than ancillary factors in human history and evolution, as well as to deepen our understanding of cross-cultural diversity at a time when it is more important than ever before.” This is quite exciting, as it is always a good idea to allow oneself opportunities to expand knowledge and make connections about the music you resonate with. The music world is always looking for new horizons and intersections to be consumed and analyzed, and there is definitely more of an overlap between science/math and music than one may think.

The Global Jukebox's "Culture Wheel"
The Global Jukebox's "Culture Wheel", where you can choose a region, subregion, area and culture, then listen to songs from them.

The website includes different features to learn more about your musical history, such as: a “culture wheel”, different “journeys” where you can “take a trip around the world of song,” similar song details/shared traits, and more ways you can learn and raise cultural awareness, which is crucial to understand our communities today. Personally, I “traced my musical roots” back to my family’s background in Italy and got to hear a recording of an old Sicilian tune.

Check out The Global Jukebox at theglobaljukebox.org and enjoy your own journey! You will certainly learn something new by the time you finish exploring, which could even be a never-ending task with our growing endless amount of educational resources. 

Alchemical Records contributor Emma Page

Emma Page

Emma Page, a recent Journalism graduate of The George Washington University, possesses a passion for music journalism and storytelling in all its forms. Originally from Baltimore, MD, when she is not writing, she can be found at a local concert or making music of her own.

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