Birds and beats

I hadn’t planned on blogging about the recent experiments that verify that Snowball the cockatoo really does dance to human music. Not only has it been covered admirably by Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science, but this isn’t exactly a stunning revelation.

Many people who live with parrots have observed this behavior (my own African Grey dances daily, though she’s more subdued and rhythmically challenged like the late Alex). Published scientific observations of other species responding to human music go back at least as far as Persian scientist Ibn al-Haytham’s Treatise on the Influence of Melodies on the Souls of Animals, more than eight centuries before Darwin, in The Descent of Man, credited both vocal and instrumental music to other species and speculated on the prehuman origins of our own music. The novelty of the current study is that the behavior came to the attention of someone who recognized its evolutionary and neurobiological significance and documented it experimentally, playing speeded-up and slowed-down versions of one of Snowball’s favorite songs and recording his ability to match the new tempo.

I decided to weigh in after reading a post at Why Evolution Is True in which Dr. Jerry Coyne radically misinterpreted the significance of this study. Since multiple attempts to comment directly to his post have failed for unknown reasons, I thought I would set the record straight here for my relatively minuscule readership.

Coyne wrote:

In his various works, Darwin always thought that the roots of many human behaviors and emotions lay in our relatives. So, for example, the rudiments of human morality could be seen in the social behaviors of our primate relatives. But until now nobody has seen any animal with behavior indicating a predisposition to produce or respond to music. [emphasis mine]

Whaaa?? That’s a wildly inaccurate statement, and definitely not what the study is about. The first sentence of the article’s summary states:

The tendency to move in rhythmic synchrony with a musical beat (e.g., via head bobbing, foot tapping, or dance) is a human universal…yet is not commonly observed in other species.

How does someone with a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from Harvard get “nobody has seen any animal with behavior indicating a predisposition to produce or respond to music” out of “rhythmic synchrony with a musical beat…is not commonly observed in other species”? I guess Dr. Coyne is unfamiliar with the field of zoomusicology.

The issue of whether any of the diverse organized sounds made by other species qualify as music depends on who you ask. As with language, anthropocentrists tend to define music so as to exclude other species, while many scientists use the term more inclusively based on the functional and structural parallels between human music and its nonhuman counterparts. Published research on the musical aspects of sounds produced by other species, particularly birds and whales, is vast and diverse, going back decades. Here’s some introductory reading on zoomusicology:

Leutwyler, Kristin (2001). Exploring the Musical Brain. Scientific American, 22 January 2001.

Gray, Patricia M., Bernie Krause, Jelle Atema, Roger Payne, Carol Krumhansl, and Luis Baptista (2001). The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music. Science 291 (January 5): 52-54. (you’ll need to purchase access or have an online subscription to Science to read this article)

Oh, and Snowball ROCKS!


1 thought on “Birds and beats

  1. Sheri —

    I will forever remember the time that I brought some of my strange music to your home. There was your dear Jessie bopping to “Optikus” by KTU, which I’m 100% sure she had never heard before. Something about the beat…

    — Mark

Add your comment or question

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s