Is musicality something unique to humans? It’s a question scientists have been asking for years, but I thought I’d dig a little deeper after seeing a recent video of a cat playing with a theramin (an eerie-sounding, electronic instrument).
I think the first thing to recognize is that musicality in humans is a broad spectrum – some of us love to listen to music, some of us love to create music, some of us love to dance and sing, and (strangely to me) some people could care less about any of it. Some people have perfect pitch, and others are tone deaf. Any time we try to determine if animals can do something we human animals can do, it’s important to think about how we define that ability.
A pigeon in a Skinner Box, Wikimedia commons.
In 1984, scientists demonstrated that pigeons could discriminate between tunes by Bach and Stravinsky. This was not something the animals did immediately, but only after hundreds of trials in an apparatus known as a Skinner Box, where pigeons could peck at a key in response to a stimulus to receive a food pellet. Since then,we have learned that other animals, including carp, have similar abilities. This supports that animals do perceive differences in musical sounds.
Do animals like human-made music? Many animals show preferences for classical music, and music can be a form of enrichment for captive animals , including pets; but ANY type of music causes stress in some animals (and it may make it harder for animals to communicate with each other), so this is not a universal preference, by any means.
Photo by Kennie Louie, Creative Commons
When it comes to making music, we know that birds and other animals (including bats, whales and seals) use song to communicate. These animals typically use their songs to defend territory and woo females– is that so different from what humans do? But many animals sing the same song over and over(can you say Britney Spears and Pitbull?), while some have a more impressive repertoire of tunes.
So what about cats? Do they make music? My answer…sort of! Here’s that cat playing with a theramin:
I would interpret this cat as playful and curious, but not seeking out a jam band to join.
And of course we have Nora the piano playing cat:
I am guessing that Nora has received a lot of reinforcement for her piano-playing behavior, even if she wasn’t specifically trained to do so.
And The Rockcats – the only cat band:
These adorable cats were clicker trained to play their instruments!
While all these cats may be making music, the reasons for doing so do not support innate musicality. However, other animals may give us reason to question the uniqueness of human musical abilities.
One of my favorite videos is of Shanthi the elephant,playing a harmonica.
And of course the Thai elephant orchestra is fascinating
We can’t rule out the effects of captivity on the willingness of animals to interact with man-made objects, including instruments (many studies support the better problem solving skills of captive hyaenas, perchingbirds, and parrots). The sounds created by interacting with musical instruments may be rewarding to the animals, which, hey, when you think about it, may not be that different from how humans learn to play instruments. So it doesn’t surprise me that these captive animals would explore musical instruments and interact with them. Are they writing and remembering songs using instruments? I don’t think we can say that right now.
Photo by Kathy Pruyn, http://www.flickr.com/photos/44603071@N00/
One of my favorite Charles Darwin quotes is that differences between humans and other animals “great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.” Evidence for animals making and playing instruments in the wild has not been demonstrated yet. But given how much we are still discovering about animals, I won’t be that surprised if someday we find that they do.