"The Global Jukebox: A Public Database of Performing Arts and Culture" published by PLOS ONE

November 3, 2022

On November 2, 2022, PLOS ONE published the scientific paper, “The Global Jukebox: A Public Database of Performing Arts and Culture” by Drs. Anna L. Wood (the Association for Cultural Equity at Hunter College, NY), Patrick E. Savage (Keio University, Fujisawa, Japan) and 17 colleagues. It is 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. 

From the mid-1950s to the 1980s, Lomax and his colleagues searched recordings and films of thousands of singing, music making, dancing, moving, and speaking events from  every region of the world for descriptors that would distinguish performances in a cross-cultural framework, and developed coding systems  to analyze and compare the examples. In the 1990s, Alan 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.”

The Jukebox is a  global database of the performing arts.  The Cantometrics dataset of musical style, with  5,776 traditional songs from 1,026 societies has been cleaned and checked for reliability and accuracy, and includes a coding guide with audio training examples. It is cross-indexed with the Database of Peoples, Languages, and Cultures (D-PLACE) to allow researchers to test hypotheses about worldwide coevolution of aesthetic patterns and traditions.

In addition to Cantometrics, seven more  datasets describing and coding instrumentation, conversation, popular music, vowel and consonant placement, breath management, social factors, and societies are also being made available in open access, downloadable format on GitHub, linked with streaming audio recordings to the maximum extent allowed while respecting copyright and the wishes of culture-bearers.

Anna L. Wood: “This huge body of  data representing human creativity in hundreds of cultures and all the world’s regions, explained and deconstructed in detail, is for the first time available to science--along with the primary data, the songs themselves”. No other database of human culture like it exists, and it is still growing. Patrick and I are proud to have worked with Carol R. Ember, Kathryn R. Kirby, Sam Passmore, Hideo Daikoku, Stella Silbert, John Szinger and 11 other collaborators, for three-plus years to clean and test the data, validate the coding system, verify and refine the societies and locations, and match them with other datasets.

Not least,  “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. For example, song texts become much less repetitive with intensified agricultural production; orchestras become more complex and enunciation of consonants more precise when authority comes from outside the local community; melodic embellishment increases in societies with layered social stratification; melodic intervals tend to be narrower in larger communities. These relationships are no doubt contingent on other factors yet to be discovered, but our findings raise new questions about the nature of musical aesthetics and what they can tell us about cultural evolution. 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.”

“Access is so important. 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.”

Through the voices on the Global Jukebox you can truly recognize and feel the power and diversity of culture.  First time users are encouraged to visit The Global Jukebox home page and click on “Wander the earth through song” and enjoy the ensuing musical journey.