Chimps, ragas, science, and cats

Maybe it’s egocentric, but we tend to view music as a uniquely human creation and experience. We (understandably) picture humans as the ones strumming guitars in coffee shops, laying down beats in recording studios, and striking gongs in orchestras; we likewise see humans nodding along with tunes, shouting out their favorite lyrics, and applauding at the conclusion of symphonies.

Several past studies have affirmed this human-centered ideology, demonstrating the lack of interest that chimpanzees, our closest mammalian relatives, have for music. Whether punk, country, polka, or classical, these creatures regard all Western music as the same and ultimately prefer silence.

However, a new study indicates that chimps actually seem to enjoy music from other parts of the world. While prior research focused on Western sounds, this experiment played Indian ragas, West African Akan, and Japanese taiko music to an audience of chimps. Their proximities to the music source were furthest during the Japanese selections (which follow similar rhythmic patterns as Western music), but the chimps gathered closer to the Indian and African music.

Researchers suggest this trend is due to rhythmic associations chimps make with Western beats, which typically have one strong beat for every one, two, or three weak beats. This pattern closely mirrors the chimps’ own displays of dominance, which “commonly incorporate repeated rhythmic sounds such as stomping, clapping, and banging objects,” according to study co-author Frans de Wall, PhD. In contrast, the polyrhythm of African drumming and the extended periods of weak beats in Indian ragas were perceived as less threatening and more inviting.

Other studies have investigated melodic content. As humans, we enjoy music that matches our own vocal and acoustic abilities, and animals likewise have proven responsive to sounds that mimic their own noises. Researcher Charles Snowdon and musician David Teie collaborated to create songs exclusively for specific animals. They succeeded in creating high-pitched, speedy tunes to excite monkeys and have since moved on to composing songs in the key of felines.

I couldn’t help but run my own experiment. I interrupted my cat Stormy’s morning nap, placed her begrudging self on my lap, and played her a couple of the samples available on the Music for Cats website. Well, she demonstrated little reaction to the music other than struggling off my lap and returning to her cozy spot–but not before flipping her tail at me with a look that said, “You woke me up for this?” In her defense, Stormy is seventeen years old…they might need to develop a kitty hearing aid before her results can be truly justifiable.

Nonetheless, the Music for Cats website claims that “A hundred years from now people will have to be taught that music was once available only to humans.”

As musicians, we celebrate the intangible, instinctive effects that creating and experiencing music causes, whether it’s an emotion, a memory, the urge to dance, or even the urge to run away. These scientific findings demonstrate that the power of music reaches beyond just humans, causing our definition of music to become increasingly, incredibly broadened.



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