There are thousands of different languages and cultures around the world, each with its own distinct music and songs. Now, imagine a single online tool where you can browse through all this rich musical diversity.

That’s exactly what Columbia University musicologist Alan Lomax set out to do by initiating the Global Jukebox project in the 1980s. Now, the project has morphed into a free, interactive web portal with recordings of nearly 6,000 folk songs from around the world that Lomax recorded or acquired.

Credit: Global Jukebox.

Users can navigate the Global Jukebox either through a spinning wheel (hence the ‘jukebox’ name) or by using grouped markers on a world map. There are also ‘journeys’ which are basically fantastic stories with in-depth information about a certain culture or anthropological culture with musical examples. Whether it’s the haunting chants of Senegal’s Kunta people or the jazzy vibes of 1950s African-Americans in Detroit, there’s something to explore and enjoy for virtually every culture.

Beyond its intended uses in research and education, the Global Jukebox was meant to be an egalitarian showcase for the expressive arts and aesthetic values of all cultures. Alan Lomax called it the “first democratic educational machine ever invented,” as it had no specific cultural bias and allowed users to explore the full range of expressiveness of culture from any starting point.

In other words, the Global Jukebox isn’t just for fun — it can be an extremely valuable academic tool. In a new study that appeared today in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers affiliated with the project have made all the extensive data behind Global Jukebox freely available to the general public and other researchers.

Classifying and cherishing global music

Each of the 5,776 songs included in the Global Jukebox dataset is characterized by 37 features, such as the number of singers, vocal embellishments, and various rhythmic and melodic qualities, but also non-musical data on different societies, including conversational styles.

This super valuable dataset can enable ethnographers and anthropologists to conduct cross-cultural investigations of musical traditions and cultural evolution with ease. To demonstrate a potential application for their dataset, researchers led by Anna L. C. Wood from the Association for Cultural Equity at Hunter College, New York City, examined the relationship between a society’s level of sociopolitical complexity and the key features of its songs.

The Global Jukebox is very much still a work in progress, which means it will only get better over time. The researchers plan on continuously adding new recordings, including songs from Polynesia which is currently underrepresented.

Lomax died in 2002, before the project could be completed, and his daughter, the anthropologist Anna Lomax Wood, has seen it through since then, fulfilling her father’s dream.

“Access is so important. More than anything 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,” Dr. Anna Wood said in a statement.

In a world of rapidly shrinking human cultural resources and centralized communication and education, the Global Jukebox is truly a breath of fresh air and a valuable tool for staving off the rapid degradation of local, regional, and tribal heritages.

Try out the Global Jukebox for yourself here.