Music in Animals

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music has always been thought of in human terms. We detect and respond to certain sounds as music. We set aesthetic parameters within which those sounds are assessed. We decide where to place the sounds on the spectrum of genres. We determine which sounds we like and which ones we do not. This process is unconscious and automatic: we naturally distinguish musical from other sounds and label them as this or that quality and type. From an anthropological perspective, humans are the only creatures capable of this brand of discernment. We have convinced ourselves that of all the animals on the planet, we are the musical judges.

Semiologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez summed up the conventional view: “[I]t is a human being who decides what is and is not musical, even when the sound is not of human origin. If we acknowledge that sound is not organized and conceptualized (that is, made to form music) merely by its producer, but by the mind that perceives it, then music is uniquely human.” Thus, even when we hear music in a cricket’s chirp or rustling leaves, it is us—not the phenomenon itself—that makes music out of the sounds. There is, however, a growing body of research that challenges this basic assumption.

Music can be defined as the purposeful arrangement of sounds with relation to pitch, rhythm and tonality. The organization and appreciation of this information are widely held as human capacities. But animals such as whales emit songs displaying human-equivalent rhythms, phrase lengths and compositional form; and birdsongs include pitch variances and rhythmic patterns compatible with human musical expression.

Scientists have long presumed that these and other non-human animal sounds serve only biological functions, such as mating, and are not received as art. It is through our ears that they are anthropomorphized into music. Yet some experts, like Cornell neurobiologist Ron Hoy, are inclined to consider that animals experience music the way we do.

There is a minor field of science called zoomusicology, which studies the musical sounds and perceptions of animals. In addition to discovering what appears to be an aesthetic attraction to species-specific sonic stimuli, researchers have shown that certain animals have clear reactions to human-made music. For instance, one study found that java sparrows prefer Bach versus Schoenberg. An experiment with carps suggests that they enjoy baroque music more than the songs of John Lee Hooker. Work done with lab rats indicates that classical pieces that are “rodentized” (sped up and adjusted to the hearing range of rodents) have an enriching effect on their behavior.

The most provocative implication of this research is that animals respond to human music in remarkably human ways. Or, more accurately, that there is something about musical stimulation that is so universal as to include beings beyond the human. The main indicator of humanity’s musicalness is not our music-making skills, which vary from unrefined and rudimentary to pristine and virtuosic. Rather, it is our innate ability to recognize and respond to music. If this ability is present in animals, as zoomusicologists contend, then musical processing is not just a human venture.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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