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What dancing sea lions and cockatoos can teach us about music

A new book explores the origins of music perception

Graphic by Michele Doying / The Verge

In June 2014, music cognition professor Henkjan Honing witnessed a strange sight: a sea lion named Ronan headbanging to a beat. When the beat sped up or slowed down, so did the bops of Ronan’s head. And when “Boogie Wonderland” by Earth, Wind & Fire started playing over the speakers, Ronan kept perfect time.

Moving with a beat may sound trivial to us humans. But Ronan’s rhythm, first published by researchers at the University of Santa Cruz in 2013, is a major clue in the quest to understand why we have music, and how it became such an important cornerstone of human culture. That’s the quest Honing, a professor at the University of Amsterdam, sets for himself in his new book, The Evolving Animal Orchestra, translated by Sherry Macdonald and published this week by MIT Press.

Ronan also apparently dances to Backstreet Boys.

The book follows Honing around the world — from Mexico, to Japan, to Santa Cruz, and back to the Netherlands. He meets animals with rhythm, and a man with none. Throughout, he grapples with the central question: why can humans perceive and appreciate music — and can other animals do it, too?

Honing comes from a family of musicians, and started out as a pianist before he went into science. As a graduate student, one of his early projects involved programming a machine to tap its foot in time to music. “If the music would go faster, the shoe should tap faster,” he tells The Verge. “And then I found out that we know so little — me as a musician, as well — about music, and how to explain these phenomena that we find so trivial, like the beat in music.”

Now, as a professor, Honing draws from psychology, computer science, as well as behavioral and neurobiology, to investigate what he calls “the musical mind.” The Verge spoke with Honing about what dancing sea lions and cockatoos can teach us about the origins of music.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What is this book about?

The book is basically a diary that I started writing the moment I was getting seriously interested in the biology of musicality — our capacity for music. The book describes what happened in the last six to eight years, but, of course, a bit cut down to make it sort of exciting because, as science normally goes, it can be very boring, very disappointing. I wanted to show, in this book, the journey of science that you don’t see. This is a look behind the scenes. Normally you show, in very bold statements, “This is my theory, and this is the evidence in favor of my theory.” And I thought, well I should also show the weaknesses, or the reality of science in what I call “the search for the capacity for music.”

What is musicality?

We are more and more in agreement that it is at least two things: beat perception and relative pitch. In the rhythm domain, it’s the skill or the cognitive predisposition to be able to hear regularity in music — so you can dance to it, so you can make music together. Without beat perception, there’s no music. The other component is relative pitch, that we recognize a melody even if it’s higher or lower, or faster or slower. We recognize it because of the contour of the melody. It turns out to be a fundamental aspect to music. That’s why we love music with theme and variations, and we can pick up all these relationships. Those two components — and there are probably far more than that — but those two components in the rhythm domain and in the pitch domain are the building blocks of what musicality is.

Do other animals have musicality?

The way I like to phrase it is when birds sing something beautiful that we think of as music — do they appreciate it as music as well? That’s the question that we’re looking at: when is something perceived and appreciated as music for another animal? We seem to share some of these components with other animals. And some of them we do not. Beat perception is one of the essential components we appear to share with some bird species, and sea lions. So we share that mechanism with very distant animals. But relative pitch is very difficult to find in the animal world. We haven’t found an animal yet that has relative pitch in the way we define it. So this musicality, we call it a phenomenon with multiple components, some of which we share with some other animals, and some are uniquely human.

What’s driven this surge of interest in musicality?

It’s the fault of Snowball the dancing cockatoo. There’s an anecdote in the book that Tecumseh Fitch, a cognitive biologist from the University of Vienna, showed the now famous video of Snowball the dancing cockatoo, who dances to the Backstreet Boys “Everybody,” who at the end bows very much like a pop star. And [Fitch] showed that at the end of the lecture, and everybody in the whole audience was laughing and crying. Because, wow, this animal can do something that we thought we only could do. And then we had a little bet: is this animal really doing this? Or is it imitating a person — because I also saw a shadow in the background of the video, and you saw somebody dancing.

Somebody eventually did the experiment with Snowball. They played “Everybody” from the Backstreet Boys, but also faster and slower. And then indeed Snowball danced faster or slower to the music. So he turns out that he’s at least listening a bit. There were all kinds of methodological problems and we had all kinds of scientific fights, if you can imagine, about the methodology. But I think that the 2009 study [about Snowball] that was on the cover of Current Biology was a pivotal study in the sense that suddenly behavioral biologists got very interested in the idea of musicality.

What’s the point of music?

To be honest, I still have no clue. I think the impact of music in terms of our emotions, our sense of belonging, and our social groups is underrated. Language is very efficient at communication, but lacks some of these aspects that music has. You hear this tune and immediately have this whole world in your head, and you hear this music and you want to be there, you want to dance to it, you want to feel it.

Why is it so engaging? The “why” question is a nasty one. I don’t have a clue as yet, but the strategy I described in the book is to first get to the components and, step-by-step, to see how you can measure pleasure and getting appreciation out of music. How does that work? What are the mechanisms there? I have not read any theory that is very good at explaining why we have music, besides the claims that it is very beautiful or very culturally important, and therefore it is important. They’re mostly circular arguments.

But why infants are sensitive to the regularities of music is peculiar. Newborn babies perceive melodies and rhythms and they use that sensitivity to learn word boundaries when they’re six months old. So it might actually be musicality before language and before music. And that idea I find intriguing.

What’s the big takeaway you want people to get from this book?

First of all, that we all have the capacity for music, and that should be something to appreciate. People always tell me, “Oh, I’m not musical, or I can’t dance to the music, or I have no sense of rhythm.” They like to play down. With language, you don’t tend to do these things. It’s not like, “I’m not a writer so therefore I should not talk to you.” With music it’s the same thing: we can all acquire it and appreciate it. That’s my main message, that musicality is something common, but nontrivial. And then the second thing would be that it has a biological basis. That’s the main strand that I’m developing in the book: What is the evidence for the biological basis of music? And in what ways do we share that with other animals? That’s the setup for research in the next 10 years, to really figure that one out.