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When Do Animals Feel the Beat?

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 25, 2014

Frogs Playing Musical Instruments

When researchers reported early this year that they had managed to get captive bonobo apes to pick up a beat and play along briefly on a drum, it was merely the latest entry in what has begun to look like a multi-species musical extravaganza. Just in the past year or so, scientists have given us a California sea lion bobbing its head to Earth Wind and Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland” and a chimpanzee in Japan spontaneously playing a piano keyboard in time with a simple beat. Before that, a study reported that romantically-inclined mosquitoes harmonize the whining of their wingbeats. Think: The Animals, Part II.

The study of animal musicality, and ours, goes back at least to Charles Darwin. He noted that rhythm is everywhere in the biological world, from the beating of hearts to the synchronized flashing of fireflies, leading naturally, he thought, to the rise of music. Scientific interest in music began to increase with the discovery of whale songs in the 1960s, and has grown dramatically in this century, thanks partly to new imaging technologies for viewing how the brains of various species respond to music.

Some scientists believe we would see musicality in the animal world more often if we looked more carefully. For instance, says University of North Carolina researcher Patricia Gray, getting bonobos to pick up the beat required accommodating their preferred tempo (fast) and creating a social situation with plenty of vocal encouragement. It also demanded a custom drum indestructible to curious fingers and able to withstand “some major jumping on the drumhead, be peed on, chewed, and hosed down.”

But to demonstrate “beat entrainment,” says Aniruddth Patel at Tufts University, the bonobos, or the chimp at the piano, should be able to match varying tempos, without seeing the human who is setting the beat. That hasn’t happened so far in non-human primates. Contrary to Darwin, Patel theorizes that the ability to feel the beat in a flexible way occurs only in certain species—mainly birds, cetaceans, elephants, bats, and humans–where the evolution of complex vocal learning required key changes in brain structure. Patel’s theory predicts, for instance, dogs will never really get it. (“Freestyle dog” dancing may be a YouTube hit, but it doesn’t constitute “beat entrainment,” he says.)

One intriguing aspect of all this research is what it may say about our own ubiquitous and toe-tappingly irresistible musicality. As Darwin suggested, rhythmic communication appears to have come first for humans and served as an essential building block that made language possible. But the evolutionary biologist (and amateur musician) W. Tecumseh Fitch argues that language then rendered music and song secondary, even “‘living fossils’ of an earlier communicative stage of humanity.” That suggests why something “so apparently useless” attracts “so much of our time and interest, and seems to have such deep and powerful effects on our emotions.” Being sidelined–and made less purposeful than it is even for songbirds–has allowed music to become “a rich, unfettered playground for creative expression.”

Humans clearly yearn for other species to feel the beat as we do. Why else have there been 5.8 million YouTube views of Snowbell the Cockatoo bobbing his head and lifting his feet to the Back Street Boys? And new research may yet reveal that more species than we imagine feel the beat, or lift their hearts to a tune, almost as we do. But for now, this particularly delightful playground still seems to belong largely to us alone.


4 Responses to “When Do Animals Feel the Beat?”

  1. Nancy said

    I saw a video on youtube where a guy was playing the piano at a sanctuary and a elephant was banging on the piano, while another elephant was swaying back and forth to the music!

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