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The role of population size in folk tune complexity

Street, Sally and Eerola, Tuomas and Kendal, Jeremy (2022) 'The role of population size in folk tune complexity.', Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 9 . p. 152.


Demography, particularly population size, plays a key role in cultural complexity. However, the relationship between population size and complexity appears to vary across domains: while studies of technology typically find a positive correlation, the opposite is true for language, and the role of population size in complexity in the arts remains to be established. Here, we investigate the relationship between population size and complexity in music using Irish folk session tunes as a case study. Using analyses of a large online folk tune dataset, we show that popular tunes played by larger communities of musicians have diversified into a greater number of different versions which encompass more variation in melodic complexity compared with less popular tunes. However, popular tunes also tend to be intermediate in melodic complexity and variation in complexity for popular tunes is lower than expected given the increased number of tune versions. We also find that user preferences for individual tune versions are more skewed in popular tunes. Taken together, these results suggest that while larger populations create more frequent opportunities for musical innovation, they encourage convergence upon intermediate levels of melodic complexity due to a widespread inverse U-shaped relationship between complexity and aesthetic preference. We explore the assumptions underlying our empirical analyses further using simple simulations of tune diffusion through populations of different sizes, finding that a combination of biased copying and structured populations appears most consistent with our results. Our study demonstrates a unique relationship between population size and cultural complexity in the arts, confirming that the relationship between population size and cultural complexity is domain-dependent, rather than universal.

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Publisher statement:Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article’s Creative Commons license, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons license and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this license, visit licenses/by/4.0/
Date accepted:21 March 2022
Date deposited:14 June 2022
Date of first online publication:28 April 2022
Date first made open access:14 June 2022

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