Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Disclaimer: The Parliamentary Library does not warrant or accept liability for the accuracy or usefulness of the transcripts. These are copied directly from the broadcaster's website.
Animals and music -

View in ParlViewView other Segments


Aniruddh Patel: 175 years ago a young Charles Darwin entered a cage at the London Zoo and played harmonica to an orang-utan. Why would he be doing that? Well, he was back from his voyage with The Beagle, but this was long before he was going to write The Origin of Species, but he was thinking about one of the great themes in evolutionary biology, the continuity between us and other species as opposed to the Victorian view that we were separate and completely unconnected from other animals in our thoughts and our cognition. Why did he play that harmonica? Well, he felt that the human response to music had ancient evolutionary roots and he was looking for some sort of reactions from the ape to see if it might enjoy the music the way that we do.

So much later he would devote 10 pages in his work, The Descent of Man, to music and to trying to understand it from an evolutionary standpoint. He felt it was an ancient, universal and powerful aspect of human life that required an evolutionary explanation. And there's a quote in there where he says 'the basic response to melody and rhythm is likely to be similar in us and other animals because of the common nature of our brains'. That makes a prediction that we should react in similar ways to melody and rhythm as other animals.

Well, a fundamental aspect about the way we respond to music is our ability to sense a beat in rhythmic music and to move in synchrony with it. If you've ever tapped your foot or danced to music you know what I'm talking about. This is very flexible in us, we can do it at slower rates or faster rates, it seems very simple to us. Some people have speculated it played a role in human evolution, in bonding groups together.

Well, modern research on this capacity is turning up some surprises. First from a neuroscience standpoint. Within the brain just listening to a beat and feeling a beat involves a network of many regions, auditory and motor regions, there is no single rhythmic centre in your brain that tracks the beat, it seems to be quite a distributed function.

From a cross-species standpoint the capacity to sense a beat and move in synchrony with it flexibly may not be that widespread. Is it just something that we and a couple of other species do, is it something that's latent in all animal brains? This is an important question because it informs theories about how this capacity evolved.

In terms of cognition, in humans the ability to move to a beat seems to be related to other cognitive capacities. So there's a paper just published in the journal Brain and Language by Adam Tierney and Nina Kraus who are here at Northwestern, showing that this capacity in high school teenagers, they measured how well they could tap to a beat in low socio-economic status high school teenagers here in Chicago. And they showed that it correlated with things like their ability to do certain verbal tasks with language, to segment words, to various other phonological sound structure based tasks and language. So there may be some relationships between this ability and other interesting aspects of human cognition. So there's various reasons to study this.

Robyn Williams: Aniruddh Patel is Associate Professor at Tufts University, and he is studying whether animals have a musical beat, as we do. That was at the AAAS.

Patricia Gray is doing similar work on bonobos, like Kanzi.

Patricia Gray: And I was sitting on the other side of a glass wall from Kanzi, and I was just sort of tapping, I don't know why, I was just doing one of those things that we do when we are waiting for something to happen. And suddenly on the other side of the glass came this Kanzi hand coming to me and he was doing the same thing back to me. And I thought, wow, that's interesting. So then I sped it up and he sped up a little bit. Well, somebody brought him in some green onions, and he seemed to enjoy doing this so much and I kept doing it, that he laid on his back and was doing it with his feet. So I thought we should be taking a look here.

Another thing that I learned about bonobos is that they are very attuned to sound. They hear above our range of hearing, they are extremely sensitive, and so when Ed and I decided that we wanted to pursue this line of research, we moved into the Jacksonville Zoo group of bonobos. And that's a group of bonobos that really have tried to be a sustained…as pure as the species could be in a managed care situation. So they really haven't been exposed to human music, they haven't had musical tools or anything like that.

So one of the things that I really wanted to focus on was the quality of the drum, because we wanted to see if we could get the bonobo to collaborate with a human drummer. So the quality of the acoustic space had to be considered, and so we approached the Remo drum company to design a musical tool, and there it is right there, that's the bonobo drum. It's very resonant. We also had to consider that it had to withstand 500 pounds of jumping pressure, it had to be able to withstand cleaning, chewing, all kinds of exploration. So this is the one that has survived. It is also the one that eventually Kuni became very interested in. And she joined our human drummer spontaneously in a collaborative research.

Robyn Williams: Patricia Gray is a clinical professor at the University of North Carolina. And the Ed she referred to just now is her collaborator Ed Large from Connecticut.

When Darwin looked at the ape and played some music, do you know what happened next?

Edward Large: Well, you know, the record isn't as clear as the records we keep today, so we really don't know if the animals that he was interested in would synchronise the way that we are talking about today.

Robyn Williams: And synchronisation is what it's all about, it's not simply that they've shown rhythm, but it's that they match their rhythm to your rhythm or somebody else's rhythm.

Edward Large: That's right. So the reason synchrony is important is because it shows the ability to coordinate your actions with an acoustic signal.

Robyn Williams: And why is that important, do you think, in human beings?

Edward Large: Because essentially that's what communication is about, that's what music is about, that's what speech is about, is the ability to use acoustic signals to coordinate our actions with one another.

Robyn Williams: Robin Dunbar in Oxford has suggested that when we came out of the trees, language became the social bond, if you like, the glue of civilisation. You could say the same about music, it would have the function of bringing us together, we dance together, we go to concerts together. Would it have…is it known, can you test it, that social function?

Edward Large: Yes, there is some research out there now that shows that when you synchronise with someone else, that promotes feelings of affiliation, it encourages you to cooperate with that other person, more than if you simply engage in some other task that might be equally fun.

Robyn Williams: What about those other animals which show a bit of a beat? The apes, sometimes chimpanzees use sticks to do a bit of drumming, and there's a wonderful big black bird in the north of Australia which uses drum beats up the tree, and they are pretty rhythmic, as a kind of mating call, and it's pretty syncopated and most impressive. But are those examples simply of animals using rhythm rather than synchronisation?

Edward Large: Well, it may be an example of one animal using rhythm to attract another animal, but then the question becomes if that other animal isn't synchronising movements, is the brain activity synchronised. And we are just not able to answer that question yet.

Robyn Williams: We've seen many pictures of plenty of stuff on YouTube of cockatoos dancing. Are they examples of training rather than animals doing it themselves?

Edward Large: Well, with Snowball, the dancing cockatoo, we actually unfortunately don't know. Snowball was a rescue animal and we don't know if its original owners taught him to dance. I think it's probably pretty safe to assume they did. With Ronan the sea lion, Peter Cook was very clear that it took months of training to do that. So with our bonobos, that's one important part of the research, we didn't want to train them, we wanted to see what they would do spontaneously.

Robyn Williams: How do you separate the training from the spontaneous reaction?

Edward Large: Well, what we do with the bonobos, we do reward them for hitting the drum, but any time they hit the drum, no matter what, they get a grape or a prune or whatever in her cup. And then we just encourage them to hit the drum, and my graduate student sits in the hallway and she taps her drum, listening on headphones, so it is a specific tempo, and then we just measure the relationship.

Robyn Williams: And what happens?

Edward Large: The bonobos are able to match her tempo. Well, let me say three things. First of all they have a very coherent spontaneous tempo. So they like to hit their drum absent to any interaction with the human being at about 280 beats per minute. However, they will also match her tempo down to about 200 beats per minute, and if you drum simultaneously with them, close enough to their preferred tempo of 280 beats per minute, they will synchronise.

Robyn Williams: And they seem to be inclined to want to synchronise.

Edward Large: I don't know if they want to. Maybe it's something that just happens automatically and they can't help it.

Robyn Williams: I see. And where is your own work going to go next with this?

Edward Large: Well, I would like to test more complicated rhythms. We've only tested very simple metronome-like drum rhythms. And we are continuing to work very carefully in human beings to look at what's happening in the brain when you listen to music.

Robyn Williams: And when you look at kids finally, it's perfectly clear, is it, that they have no inclination to synchronise, say, under the age of two, but then gradually it becomes more and more the kind of thing they want to do.

Edward Large: Yes, it develops gradually, it does.

Robyn Williams: Any idea why?

Edward Large: No.

Robyn Williams: That's the way the brain's organised.

Edward Large: That's the way the brain works, exactly.

Robyn Williams: Thank you very much.

Edward Large: All right, thank you.

Robyn Williams: Edward Large is Professor of Psychology at the University of Connecticut.

And now, for a final set of thoughts on these animals getting the rhythm, Peter Cook from Santa Cruz.

Peter Cook: There's some really exciting theories out there, and we got kind of hung up on this idea of what brain mechanisms might be involved in allowing something like moving in time to a rhythm in a complex stimulus like music. And there's some compelling ideas that perhaps vocal flexibility is related, there might be something about language. And we thought, okay, but we really want to look at this in a pure test case. Let's find an animal who is not closely related to humans, who is not vocally flexible. If we really work at it, if we do some very specific training, can we demonstrate a flexible capability for rhythmic entrainment for moving in time to complex musical stimuli in an animal like that?

And at Pinniped Lab we had a perfect exemplar all those things and that's a sea lion. We did this work with Ronan the sea lion who was a young animal who had come in from the wild. She was a multiple strander, so she kept coming to shore in distress and eventually had to be put in captivity and we adopted her at the lab.

I don't know if any of you have ever interacted with sea lions or seen them at SeaWorld, they are extremely charismatic, they are behaviourally flexible. Ecologically they are a very adaptive species, they kind of have everything you look for in intelligent species. They are really easy to train. They eat a lot of food, which gives you a lot of opportunity to work with them, and they are very, very enthusiastic.

I've worked with primates a little bit too, and something I've seen with them is if you try to make the training too specific or too formal you sometimes get push-back. You don't get that from sea lions, sea lions seem to thrive in that environment, they are kind of type A I guess on the animal scale. They like working on tough problems and they like trying and trying and trying and failing until they figure it out, which is maybe somewhat unique in animals I've worked with, and I've trained a fair number.

So I came to this work as a comparative psychologist, a pretty dedicated animal trainer, and we had this fantastic animal in Ronan, just really a dynamic animal. And we thought, well, let's see what we can get if we just really stick with it, keep trying. You know, we checked initially, Ronan did not synchronise to a beat just when we gave her one, it didn't happen spontaneously, which is probably not too surprising. And then we set about training it, and that was a somewhat exhaustive process, it just involved a lot of repetition, we trained her to move her head up and down repeatedly, which is a little difference to some of the other approaches.

So the first thing she learned was just waggle your head wildly, regardless of rhythm or anything, she would just waggle her head any time we played any type of sound. And then we brought her waggling in line with the phase, with the tempo of some very specific exemplar stimuli we use, they were like metronomes essentially.

And after a few months of training she reliably would move in time with these beats, very reliably. Well, that was great, we thought, but maybe we had just trained her to move at a couple of set rates, and we thought we need to see flexibility, so we gave her a whole range of different tempos she had never heard before. She transferred to them beautifully without prior experience. We thought that's great, but there's also this issue of what's happening with more complex stimuli, what's happening with music, something where you actually have to do some cognitive work to extract the beat and figure out how to move in time with it.

And we gave her a few different pop songs, Backstreet Boys which was inspired of course by Snowball the dancing cockatoo, that was Snowball's jam. And we moved on to some other songs too, and 'Boogie Wonderland' seemed to be Ronan's favourite, she excelled at that one. We did a whole range of really thorough tests and she just kept succeeding and succeeding and succeeding. We changed the tempo, we pushed her to go for longer and longer periods, and she had clearly developed by the end, we were certain, a very dynamic and reliable ability to move in time to beats and a complex musical stimulus.

The reason that's important for more than just a cool factor, something neat to look at on YouTube, is that at that time Ronan really was unique in the empirical literature in that other attempts, and there were not that many, to look for this type of rhythmic ability in animals other than humans or things like parrots, had not been successful. In line with the Darwinian idea of, well, we've got similar brains, and some of the things Dr Large was just talking about, you know, that rhythm is essential to how the brain works, it…it is a paradox, why aren't we seeing more of this type of behaviour in animals who are exposed?

And I think having found it very reliably and repeatedly in Ronan suggests that maybe we can find it if we look hard enough or if we look in the right ways, and that may require different training approaches, it may require more flexible approaches that take the ecology of the animal into consideration. But I think there's a lot more fruitful exploration to be done in terms which animals can do it, and that's going to tell us a lot about the human faculty as well.

Robyn Williams: Peter Cook is at the University of California, Santa Cruz; a good place for showing that sea lions have the rhythm. And you can watch composer Peter Gabriel on YouTube jamming with Kanzi the bonobo.

Aniruddh PatelAssociate professor of Psychology
Tufts University
Medford Massachusetts USAPatricia GrayAdjunct Clinical Professor
Director of Biomusic
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro North Carolina USAEdward LargeProfessor
Department of Psychology
University of Connecticut
Storrs Connecticut USAPeter CookGraduate Student
University of California
Santa Cruz CA USA

Further Information
Aniruddh Patel at Tufts UniversityPatricia Gray at University of North CarolinaEdward Large at University of ConnecticutYoutTube: Bonobo playing the piano

PresenterRobyn Williams ProducerDavid Fisher