Studying Other Animals Can Help Us Answer What It Means to Be a Musical Species

Music is found in all human cultures and thus appears to be part of our biology and not simply a cultural phenomenon. One approach to studying the biology of music is to examine other species to see if they share some of the features that make up human musicality. An international research team lead by Marisa Hoeschele from the University of Vienna argue that only by combining examination of species’ natural behaviour and artificially testing species for their potentials the animal foundations for our musical faculty can be discovered. Animal research could be the key to unlocking what features of human music are cultural phenomena, and what features are rooted in our biology. This work is published in the scientific journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

Different human cultural groups developed unique musical systems independently across human history. Despite the uniqueness of each musical system, there are many aspects of music, such as the type of intervals between notes that sound pleasing, that tend to have clear parallels across cultures. It seems very likely, that if all humans develop musical systems, and they also have clear parallels, that music is a biological phenomenon of the human species.

Interestingly, just like there are cross-cultural parallels across musical systems, there are also cross-species parallels of song production and perception. For example, think of the songbirds that are named for having song-like vocalizations. Songbirds also learn how to produce their vocalizations, a prerequisite to learning new songs, which is a relatively uncommon ability in the animal kingdom, and some can learn to produce additional vocalizations over their lifetime. Parrots also have this ability, and have recently also been shown to be able to identify a beat and move to it. Clearly, some animals appear to have biological adaptations that are quite similar to ours.

The image shows two zebra finches sitting on a guitar.
The ethology of animals could decrypt the foundations of human musicality. This image is for illustrative purposes only. Image credit: Siddharth Khajuria.

But do these naturalistic parallels mean that animals can be musical? We already know that at least some animals can categorize music by composer and/or genre much like humans do. The little work that is out there in this quickly-growing field suggests that there are not only many parallels in abilities that are relevant for music, but many animals can perceive the components of music the way we do, and at least some also enjoy similar aspects of sounds that we enjoy. “Our review outlines what we know in the field and where the field needs to go in order to ultimately be able to answer the question of the origins of the human musical capacity”, describes Hoeschele.

About this biomusicology research

Contact: Marisa Hoeschele, PhD – University of Vienna
Source: University of Vienna press release
Image Source: The image is credited to Flickr user Siddharth Khajuria and is licensed Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Original Research: Full open access research for “Searching for the origins of musicality across species” by Marisa Hoeschele, Hugo Merchant, Yukiko Kikuchi, Yuko Hattori, and Carel ten Cate in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. Published online February 2 2015 doi:10.1098/rstb.2014.0094

Open Access Neuroscience Abstract

Searching for the origins of musicality across species

In the introduction to this theme issue, Honing et al. suggest that the origins of musicality—the capacity that makes it possible for us to perceive, appreciate and produce music—can be pursued productively by searching for components of musicality in other species. Recent studies have highlighted that the behavioural relevance of stimuli to animals and the relation of experimental procedures to their natural behaviour can have a large impact on the type of results that can be obtained for a given species. Through reviewing laboratory findings on animal auditory perception and behaviour, as well as relevant findings on natural behaviour, we provide evidence that both traditional laboratory studies and studies relating to natural behaviour are needed to answer the problem of musicality. Traditional laboratory studies use synthetic stimuli that provide more control than more naturalistic studies, and are in many ways suitable to test the perceptual abilities of animals. However, naturalistic studies are essential to inform us as to what might constitute relevant stimuli and parameters to test with laboratory studies, or why we may or may not expect certain stimulus manipulations to be relevant. These two approaches are both vital in the comparative study of musicality.

“Searching for the origins of musicality across species” by Marisa Hoeschele, Hugo Merchant, Yukiko Kikuchi, Yuko Hattori, and Carel ten Cate in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. Published online February 2 2015 doi:10.1098/rstb.2014.0094.

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