Birds, Whales as Musical as Humans

PureInsight | January 5, 2001

Jan. 5, 2001 ¡ªTrue music may be more than just a human trait, say scientists who have found basic musical patterns in the song of birds and whales.
Careful studies of bird song and whale song indicate that birds not only create original works of music, but they collaborate in singing complex songs. Whales compose veritable symphonies ¡ª complete with repeating themes and movements.

'If songs can be defined as 'any rhythmic repeated utterance, whether by a bird, a frog, an insect, a whale or a human being',' reports Patricia Gray of National Musical Arts, 'then humpback whale songs are constructed according to laws that are strikingly similar to those used by human composers.'

Gray and her colleagues review the nature of music, and the music of nature, in this week's issue of Science.

Among the animals cited as musically adept are humpbacks, wood thrushes, ruby-crowned kinglets, Socorro mockingbirds, and marsh wrens.

There is even a drummer called the palm cockatoo of northern Australia and New Guinea. Palm cockatoo males are known to break off twigs and make drumsticks out of them. They then find a nice, hollow-toned part of a log and drum away, holding the drumstick with one foot. The musical rhythm they make appears to be part of is a courtship ritual, says Gray.

That birds and whales are both known to pass songs along to each other is more evidence that the songs are not genetically programmed, uncreative behaviors but learned, creative acts, she says.

Just how the brain, human or otherwise, processes and reacts to song is still being studied, but humans and many other animals seem to be born primed to understand, learn and enjoy music.

'It is astonishing how early in life musical competence can be demonstrated,' reports Mark Tramo of Harvard University. At just four months, infants prefer pleasant sounding rather than harsh tones. Rats and starlings have the same ability.

The realization that other animals are music makers means that music could have deep roots in evolution and genetics. The fact that music is capable of touching off deep emotions in humans seems to support this, says Gray.

Basic emotions are known to originate in the most primitive parts of the human brain, and the fact that these areas are touched off by music seems to be a clue to how early in our evolution music was invented, she says

'If it is as ancient as some believe, this could explain why we find so much meaning and emotion in music even though we cannot explain why it makes us feel the way it does.'

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