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Do Animals Have an Innate Sense of Music?


Listen closely the next time you hear a bird singing, and you may hear rhythms and patterns strikingly similar to those found in human music. Scientists studying these patterns argue that the nature of music may be deeper than previously thought—and may suggest an inherent knowledge of music that is shared by many animals, including humans, birds, and whales.


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Hermit Thrush
Photograph by Clive Druett: Papilio/CORBIS

In the last half-century, Judy Collins has sung with humpback whales and CDs with titles like “Sounds of the Rainforest” have flown off store shelves. The business of “natural music” is booming.

But are these soothing sounds truly music? Or are they simply biological functions of the animals that create them?

A recent Science article suggests that not only are natural sounds such as whale and bird songs music, but that their songs may be part of a “universal music” that provides an intuitive musical concept to many animals—including humans.

“We can look at the evidence and we can give more credit to animals,” said article co-author Jelle Atema, a biology professor at Boston University who has studied prehistoric flutes. “And we can look at humans and be less impressed with humans.”

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Humpback whale
Photograph by C. Wolcott Henry III/NG Image Collection
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The flutes, made of bone and created up to 57,000 years ago, indicate the importance of music to our cave-dwelling ancestors, explained Atema. “The musical instruments were more complex than the hunting tools.”

The similarities between human and animal sounds and the innate desire to create music that the similarities suggest is a topic now being explored by the evolving field of biomusicology.

SOUND OR MUSIC?

There seems to be little question that nature can create aesthetically pleasing sounds. Mozart, for example, rewrote a passage from the last movement of his Piano Concerto in G Major to match the song of his starling.

The bird’s song, biomusicologists argue, was music before being “composed” by Mozart.

However, the definition of “music, ” cautioned Ron Hoy, professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University, should be examined thoroughly before being used to describe particular sounds.

Although the term “music” has been liberally applied—to composer John Cage’s “4'33''”,4 minutes, 33 seconds of silence, for example —Hoy argues that all concepts of music return to the human view of what is or is not “musical”

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Marsh Wren
Photograph by Darrell Gulin/CORBIS
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“Music,” said Hoy, “is strictly an anthropological concept.” Humans find beauty in certain sounds and dub them music,” he said.

“A whole generation of ’60s hippies altered their minds listening to whale songs, ” said Hoy. “To human ears, they’re gorgeous.”

But do animals purposefully create these aesthetically pleasing sounds?

Atema argues that this possibility should be given serious consideration. Just as our ancestors labored over their musical instruments, animals work at their own musical creations, he said.

“ [Humpback whales] spend a huge amount of energy and time making music, ” said Atema.

Hoy noted, however, that some scientists argue that so-called musical sounds created by animals serve only a biological function.

“I think it’s completely open as to whether animals experience music the way that we do, ”said Hoy. Because animals’ cognitive abilities have not been fully understood, their creations can only be filtered through human ears and emotions.

MUSIC: NOT JUST A HUMAN LANGUAGE

Biomusicologists argue that not only are the sounds of some animals pleasing, but they are also composed with the same musical language that humans use.

Whales, for example, use many of the musical concepts found in human music, including similar rhythms, phrase lengths, and song structure. These similarities, the Science writers maintain, “prove that these marine mammals are inveterate composers. ”

The writers also point to birds as musicians, noting that bird songs follow rhythmic patterns and pitches that are in tune with human music. Birds not only create vocal sound, they point out, some also add a percussion instrument to their songs.

Citing these similarities, as well as the Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal flutes examined by Atema, the Science article suggest that there may be a “universal music”: one that unites all composers—human and animal.

The “impenetrable vagueness” of music, they conclude, “seems to signal that the roots of music lie closer to our ancient lizard brain…that music has a more ancient origin even than human language.”


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Over the last year, biomusicology has been “a topic of great interest” to patrons at Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s Library of Natural Sounds, according to curator Greg Budney.

The library houses over 150,000 recordings of bird and other animal sounds—the largest of its kind in the world. The library’s collection dates back to 1929, when a film company decided to record bird songs near the Ithaca, New York laboratory to demonstrate its new “talkie” technology, said Budney.

The collection grew gradually, punctuated by periods of exponential growth due to technological innovation. The number of recordings has increased tenfold in the last two decades.

The public is welcome to listen to the library’s sound collection (the collection has provided recordings for “everyone from musicians…to Microsoft, ” said Budney), as well as to donate sound recordings of their own.

“More and more people are recording all the time, ” said Budney, and new technology allows amateur recordings to be nearly on par with professionals.’

Audio recordings can prove a valuable documentation of the past: one of the library’s most prized possessions is a 1935 recording of the presumed-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker.

Listening to the bird sounds, said Budney, “is like opening another window onto the world.”