Zoomusicology – 5.19.23

Dear College of Science Faculty and Staff,

Kruger Park is an extraordinary South African national park, comparable in size to Israel or New Jersey, well managed for people and animals. Some years ago, my parents were visiting and there was to be a sunset orchestral concert near a waterhole, that supplied elephants and other animals. As people gathered for the concert, a herd of elephants was finishing up and starting to file away, the matriarch first, then the mothers with babies and the young males last. As they were leaving, the orchestra began to play. My mom said that theelephants all stopped, stood for a minute and then the matriarch turned and led her group back to the side of the waterhole. The elephants stood quietly through the concert, listening along with the humans on the other side. Whether all elephants love human music is a bit controversial, but generally, my mom’s story is upheld. There’s wide interest in whether various other animal species enjoy human music and which kinds. I can personally recount that our dogs have unequivocally responded to music, either ignoring it, asking to go outside when it starts, or for Bach, howling and having to be put outside.

These interests have formed Zoomusicology‘the study of musical aspects of sound and communication as produced and perceived by (non-human) animals’. This rather huge and dispersed field includes approaches such as behavioral analysis, electrophysiology and measurement of brain activity. More interesting to me than whether non-human animals like our music, is when animals first made their own music. With a definition of music as ‘the art of arranging sound to create form, harmony, melody or rhythm, or otherwise expressive content’, one can trace music way back in evolution. Certainly, insects make lots of it, both in the human auditory range and ‘soft sound’ hidden to our ears. Sometimes non-human musical communications are called ‘vocalizations’ but I think that’s picky, as all music communicates, whether emotions or discrete messages. Consistent with an ancient origin, human music and birdsong activate the same reward pathway in the brains of humans and birds. Furthermore, human ‘language’ and ‘music’ may have bifurcatedfrom a common origin. (Expert opinion from our linguistics and psychology colleagues will be excellent here!)

One last bit is the inverse of the elephant story, how we humans respond to music made by other animals. Elephants themselves make a lot of sounds (here is the Asian elephant repertoire). And you may know already, thepeacefulness of waking up to birdsong, or deep in the night when it’s still, thewonder of screech owls calling.