Do Monkeys Respond to Music Like We Do?

rothwell_w_cottontop08_0399Charles Snowdon is a professor of psychology and zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Science & Religion Today recently spoke with him about his monkey music experiment with David Teie, a composer and cellist with the National Symphony Orchestra.

Why test monkeys for musical traits?
One of the things that we’re interested in is how did music evolve, how did it develop in human beings? We realized that, in our own language, we add a lot of musical components to it when we’re trying to communicate emotionally. So if I say “I’m happy” in a flat tone or “I’m really sad today” in a cheerful voice,  you probably aren’t going to pay much attention to my words, but pay more attention to my intonation, the patterns of music that are in my voice. For instance, we know that if we want to calm a baby we’ll say, “Aw …” starting at a high pitch and going to a lower pitch so our notes and sounds are really drawn out.
We know as well that we can help slow down our dogs or a horse by saying [in a drawn out way]: “Whoa. Slow.” So the same patterns seem to work in terms of maneuvering the behavior in other species
That raises the question: Is this emotional communication something that may be very old and very ancient that we’ve built upon with our music to make it something much more complicated and uniquely human, but underneath it somewhere there are these basic principles that are related to emotion?

Can we trace the evolutionary roots of our emotional response to music?
My collaborator, David Teie, is a musician and a composer, and he’s been really interested in what it is about music that moves us. When we listen to a piece of music, why do we feel sad sometimes, or why do we feel cheerful and happy at other times? David’s been looking for some principles in composition that composers might use to get (or trick) us to make us feel an emotion the way that the composer wants us to. How do we test this theory? One of the problems with doing this with people is that we already have a long history of how we react to music. We know we either like rock music or we hate it. We like rap music or we hate it. We like Mozart or we hate it. It becomes very hard to look at this in humans because we already have a long learning history with our experience with music.
This led to thinking about testing monkeys, as a substitute. But then we ran into a neat little problem, which is that the monkeys, in a different study, were shown to be totally indifferent to human music. So if you gave the monkey a choice between Mozart and rock, the monkey preferred Mozart, but if you gave the monkey a choice between silence and Mozart, the monkey preferred silence. That suggested that we shouldn’t expect another species to have the same musical responses we have, but if there’s some sort of general theory involved, we should be able to show that in some other way.

By composing special music for monkeys?
We discovered as we listened to the monkeys that they have a voice range that is about three octaves higher than the human voice and their rate of calling is about twice as fast as human speech. With those features in mind, David Teie wrote some music that had these basic principles. David hypothesized that to calm an organism, we have long tonal notes that don’t have any dissonance in them, and are very clear pure tones. For arousing music, we have short staccato notes that may have a lot of dissonance added to them, which induces fear.
David composed music to express those two different aspects and we played them back to the monkeys, we found that basically they didn’t respond to the human music—we played them human calming music and some human rock music. But then we played the tamarin calming music and they calmed down. And they showed increased activity and increased anxious behavior when we played them the tamarin arousing music. This suggests that the same principles hold across a variety of animals, but in order to test these principles, we need to be aware that other species may not be hearing music the same way we hear music.

Especially when it comes to Metallica.
What we found was that when we played them Metallica—and also a piece by Tool—they calmed down after hearing it.
I have no idea why that happened. But what is nice from our perspective is that although our monkey version of Metallica got them aroused and active and even increased anxious behaviors, the human version calmed them down. It really does illustrate the point that monkeys are hearing something very different and responding in a different way than humans do to human music.

So maybe monkeys and other animals make music too, just differently than humans do?
There are some animals that people have called musical. Birds sing, and some birds have really complex songs, if we look at themes and variations as a component of music. There are some species in which a male is more attractive to a potential mate if he can sing in a complex way and especially add some variations to the theme. But that’s not communicating about emotion; it’s communicating basically to convince someone to mate with you.  And although we may use music as a mating strategy, we have a lot more things that we use music for than that.
I don’t know that monkeys are making music, in the sense of “creating,” but we did find a lot of musical structure in their own calls. When musicians heard these calls, they could say, “Oh, there’s a minor second” or “That’s a major third between this note and that note.” So the monkeys who were producing their own vocalizations were using the same sort of scale that we humans use to appreciate music or describe music. So the monkeys are doing something musical, though they’re not showing the creativity that we know that humans do with music.
There are some language-trained chimpanzees that can use symbols, so it might be interesting to see, if you gave them a keyboard to produce tones, if they would just produce random sequences or whether they would eventually produce some sort of nice chordal structure. That would be really easy to do, but I don’t know that any of the people working with symbol-using chimpanzees have ever tried that. That would be one interesting way to see if another species would create something musical.

Category: Animal Studies


3 Responses

  1. Devin Lawton says:

    This may seem like a ludicrous response, however, does not the chimpanzee Cheetah, (of the Tarzan movies,) like to play the piano?

    I am pretty certain that on his 60th birthday, he celebrated by having cake and playing the piano.

    Perhaps Cheetah has been too far removed from Chimpanzee society for too long to make a definitive study, but it would be worth inquiring about surely?


  2. Eric Yuen says:

    It seems to me that this must have been a very interesting study. To play the tamarin rock music and see a response shows to me that monkeys might respond to music as we humans do. Its also good to point out the potential study of language trained chimps to possibly compose music in some sort of way. It seems that from this study, that it can very well be possible for them to do so.

  3. Samuel Caleb Wee says:

    “But that’s not communicating about emotion; it’s communicating basically to convince someone to mate with you.”

    Isn’t that like, 75% of all modern radio music?

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