Elgar for Elephants? – Is music appreciation a human pursuit? –

Did you know we offer a Winter School course in Communicating Science? If you’re interested in science writing for both specialist and non-specialist audiences, presenting to communicate science and the use of emerging online social media in science communication, this is a great course for you. If you’re interested, check out “Communicating Science” in course outlines for more details.

Over the coming weeks we’ll be showcasing blog posts written by Communicating Science students during their course last year. The next blog in the series is “Elgar for Elephants? – Is music appreciation a human pursuit? –” by Thomas Cernev.


In our society music is a tool of expression, an elite skill, an entertainment medium, underpinned by the fact that most people can hear, recognise and often mimic a tune or rhythm, the two basic components. Aside from enjoying a passing bird call or being soothed by a whale song, music is fundamentally a human endeavour. Whether being composed, performed or even programmed, it is created by us, for us.

Which leads to some intriguing questions, can animals be musical? Do they respond to music as humans do? Can they recognise pitch and rhythm? And will we one day see animal musicians?

Responses to music

In a 2001 study koi were taught to distinguish between blues recordings of John Lee Hooker and oboe concertos of Bach. Eventually the fish were also able to tell the difference between melodies of the same rhythm but different pitches, as well as classifying other styles of music (apart from blues and oboes concertos). In an earlier study involving pigeons, the birds listened to Bach pipe organ works and The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky and were trained to peck one of two discs: left if it was Bach, right if it was Stravinsky. As this ability developed other Stravinsky and Bach excerpts were introduced, as well as excerpts from stylistically similar composers, with the pigeons responding in almost the same way as human subjects had. The results of these studies suggest that animals have the propensity to categorise music in a similar way to humans, which is particularly interesting given how distantly related koi, pigeons and humans are.

Pigeons, Koi and Humans- the Ultimate Music Appreciation Society [images from here, here, here

Pigeons, Koi and Humans- the Ultimate Music Appreciation Society [images from here, here, here]

However these studies are not without issues. There are several problems in analysing the biomusicology of species, such as the animals simply recognising whether a specific frequency is present or not, rather than the sound of the music as a whole. Additionally it raises interesting questions around whether animals have particular music tastes. Until a 2014 study it had been observed that primates had the ability recognise features of music, but it was not thought that they had a favourite type of music. This study found that chimpanzees sat closer to the speakers when Indian and African music was playing, and further away when they had to listen to Taiko drums or when no music was playing at all. It is also thought that some animals may have a preference for consonant (“harmonically nice”) over dissonant (“clashy”) music. When placed in an environment with consonant music on one side and dissonant music on the other, new born chicks visually imprinted on the consonant side, spending more time on that side of the area, according to this study.

Rhythm

Snowball the dancing cockatoo made headlines thanks to his dance routine to Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’

Snowball the Amazing Dancing Cockatoo

But it wasn’t just his high kicks and head-banging that had everyone excited. It was the fact that when Snowball lost the beat, he was able to find it again and continue dancing in time! Snowball has since gone on to have a lucrative career in advertising, but at the time scientists used the timing of his dance moves and the music to prove that the cockatoo adjusted his tempo to stay synchronised to the beat. Until this discovery animals had only been found to respond to music, not to keep a rhythm. Snowball’s unique style caused a surge in scientists analysing similar YouTube videos, and identified 14 species of parrot and one elephant who could move in time to music.

Animals as musicians?

So, given that particular animals seem to be more musically talented than others, quite similar to people in some ways, how long is it until we see a cat signing onto a record deal and worldwide stadium tour?

Have we found the new J.S. Bach? [image found here]

Have we found the new J.S. Bach? [image found here]

Well, probably not a cat (apparently they have no sense of rhythm), but there are animal ensembles already in existence around the world. One of the most prolific is the Thai Elephant Orchestra, made up of around 14 elephants playing huge, heavy duty, unbreakable percussion instruments.

The Thai Elephant Orchestra- A Modernist Masterpiece

All the elephants previously worked in logging, and when this practice became illegal, a conservation centre was set up. David Soldier, a neuroscientist, travelled to Thailand, and on hearing that elephants responded and enjoyed music, built a giant marimba. Within half a hour an elephant had learned to play it.

The orchestra is fully improvisational with the elephants only being told which instruments to play and when to start. They move in time to the music, add their own trumpeting and can even play the harmonica with their trunks. And they clearly love it! According to Soldier one of the elephants, Phong, would “pick up a stick and we couldn’t get him to stop”. The elephants are not trained in the same way as the pigeons and koi discussed earlier. Instead they are self taught and created their own musical style and technique without any demonstration or positive reinforcement through food. Some of the more intelligent elephants have also demonstrated the ability to play multiple instruments at once and set up rhythms for the group, demonstrating that elephants clearly have far more musical talent than we thought. If you’re interested, the Thai Elephant Orchestra has recorded three CDs, which are also on Spotify!

This program paved the way for research into the cognitive and musical abilities of these large creatures, in addition to raising money for the conservation centre through local concerts. The endeavours discussed above demonstrate that there is so much still to discover about the musical ability of elephants and other animals, and studies so far show that their appreciation and tastes may be more like our own than we imagine. So if your dog likes to howl along with opera singers or your cat listens attentively to the Hottest 100 every year, leave them be, they’re just taking part in a very human activity, music appreciation.

Cows are clearly jazz lovers…

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