Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Musical Monkeys

capuchin monkey courtesy Bryce Richter, University of Wisconsin, Madison
OK, so it's not going to be hitting the top of the charts any time soon, but Dr. Charles Snowdon from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, thinks he knows what cotton-top tamarin monkeys like. Working with musician David Teie, he's created songs that both agitate and please these primates.

For the University press release, you can go here.

For the music itself, you can go here.

What I think is interesting about this story is how it fits into a curious evolutionary story. Music is present in most cultures around the world. When something is that widespread, then there's a good chance it exists for some kind of evolutionary reason. But music has created a problem. Many evolutionary traits can be seen in our closest relatives, the other primates. Music, both in terms of creation and appreciation, seemed to be missing. Yes, I know, people's pets will seem to recognize music, and even sing or dance along (remember the dancing parrot), but this is something deeper. Music seems to affect us at an emotional level, but play the same thing to a monkey and nothing.

That is until Dr. Snowdon's study. In this case, he's using music that's been created for the monkeys. It doesn't sound like music to our ears, but it contains tones that mimic sounds the monkeys naturally make. So, for them a rising tone and staccato notes mean danger, and long steady descending tones mean peace and calm. Create music with these patterns, and the monkeys respond in kind.

Now we have a possible evolutionary link. Like monkeys, we communicate emotion through our tone of voice, that's partly why email is a rotten way of communicating sarcasm. Could music be the natural extension of this? Not just to tell others how we're feeling, but to manipulate their emotions as well. It works in the monkeys, we know music does it to us too, were the first musical notes just a way of controlling the crowd?

If nothing else, this study opens the doors to studying music in other primates. All it takes is knowing what sounds are going to create themes they'll find interesting.

Oh, and one other thing. There was one type of human music these monkeys found soothing. The melodies of Motley Crue!

Image: Cotton-top tamarins grew calmer after they heard music compositions based on their own calm, friendly calls. But the monkeys became more agitated when University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor Charles Snowdon played music that contained elements of their own threatening or fearful calls. Courtesy Bryce Richter/University of Wisconsin, Madison

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