animals music
February 19, 2015

Do animals appreciate music?

Shayne Jacopian for - @ShayneJacopian

In 2001, former Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel set out in conjunction with Georgia State University researchers to teach a group of 12 bonobo apes how to play the piano. Did they succeed?

At least one ape did. BT, a producer who Peter was collaborating with at the time, reported that a primate that went into Peter’s studio to record “played piano pretty well … it’s going to scare the hell out of you.” Mr. Gabriel didn’t even have to shock the monkey (I’ll see myself out…); the primate was glad to do it in exchange for some Jell-O—terms that it communicated to its caretaker via sign language.

We know that animals can be trained to do some pretty cool things, like playing musical instruments, painting pictures, and so on. However, as impressive as that is, it’s just the result of extensive training—the animal is remembering a series of actions, and executing them.

The next question is: Are non-human species capable of being creative? Are they capable of perceiving and appreciating patterns in music, and of producing music that follows these patterns?


Many non-human species can recognize musical patterns

While researchers from the University of Vienna argue that more naturalistic studies still need to be done, laboratory studies from the last few decades suggest that they are.

For instance, a 1984 study found pigeons to be capable of telling the music of different composers apart—in this case, Bach and Stravinsky. A more recent study found carp to be capable of classifying blues and classical music by genre.

A wide variety of animals, then, are capable of recognizing patterns in music. Additionally, other lab studies have found non-human species to have similar preferences for sound as humans: When given the choice between dissonant sounds (clashing, ugly) and consonant sounds (intervallically stable), newborn chicks chose to sit closer to the speaker playing the more consonant music.

More work to be done

The researchers argue, however, that while previous research has shown many species to have the capacity to categorize music, and to have auditory preferences similar to those of humans, there is so much more that can be found out, and they say that it will require more naturalistic studies in the future. For example, evidence for or against the non-human perception of rhythm, timbre, and pitch, as well as higher order acoustic patterns, is inconclusive, and the University of Vienna team suggests that these are studies that won’t be able to be done properly in a lab environment.

This relatively unexplored field of study is really fascinating, and we hope that the research by the University of Vienna helps to prod scientists to do even more research in the field, so we can get closer to answers for these questions of finer details of musical perception.

Until we have those answers, enjoy this video of a monkey playing the keyboard solo from The White Stripes’ “Icky Thump.”


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