Sunday, October 07, 2012

Is birdsong music?

Nightingale wrens (by John G. Keulemans)
Many studies on the origins of music concern the question of what defines music. Can birdsong, the song structure of humpback whales, a Thai elephant orchestra, or the interlocking duets of Gibbons be considered music? In trying to answer this question, it is important to separate the notions of ‘music’ and ‘musicality’, with musicality being defined as a natural, spontaneously developing trait based on and constrained by our cognitive system, and music as a social and cultural construct based on that very musicality.

However, it is still a challenge to demarcate precisely what makes up this trait we call musicality. What are the cognitive mechanisms that are essential to perceive, make and appreciate music? Only when we have identified these fundamental mechanisms are we in a position to see how these might have evolved. In other words, the study of the evolution of music cognition is conditional on a characterization of the basic mechanisms that make up musicality.

Other studies are concerned with thinking about the question what we share with other animals in terms of musicality. And indeed, no matter how we would like it to be different, we are repeatedly reminded that we have more similarities to nonhuman animals than differences. However, we must be careful in calling birdsong or a chimpanzee’s drumming on an empty barrel, music. We make this mistake more often. We, the human listeners, perceive the sounds made by songbirds, whales, or chimpanzees as music. Whether these other animals also do that is unclear. And that makes a world of difference.

A few weeks ago an interesting study appeared in Animal Behavior on the often used example of the song of a nightingale that can be considered to be impressively musical. In that study ecologist Marcelo Araya-Salas (New Mexico State University in Las Cruces) shows that the resemblance between a nightingale wren's song and music is nothing more than a coincidence. Out of the 243 comparisons Araya-Salas made between nightingale wrens' songs and musical scales, only six matched harmonic intervals. Despite the beauty of birdsong, it’s again an example that when we call something music we’re projecting our own biases. Nothing wrong with that at all, but good to realize.

 ResearchBlogging.orgAraya-Salas, M. (2012). Is birdsong music? Evaluating harmonic intervals in songs of a Neotropical songbird Animal Behaviour, 84 (2), 309-313. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2012.04.038

ResearchBlogging.orgRothenberg, D. (2005). Why Birds Sing: A Journey through the Mystery of Birdsong. New York : Basic Books.

P.S. In the context of earlier discussions on tuning systems (e.g., see blog entry): this study suggests that we might actually not be so sensitive to tuning as we might think.

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