Is musicality a uniquely human trait?

Here is another paper which I wrote for my Masters in Anthrozoology and thought you guys might find interesting. Tell me what your thoughts are on this topic in the comments!


The nature-culture dichotomy has been partly fueled by the belief that humans are unique in their musicality. A simple definition of musicality can be difficult to agree upon, especially when extended across species (Rothenberg et al., 2014). For the purpose of this paper, musicality can be understood as an aesthetic sense for music (Kaplan, 2009) and a sensitivity to music (Dogil and Reiterer, 2009), as well as an ability to produce and appreciate it (Blacking, 1969). Not only is it often seen as a uniquely human trait, but music is  “(…) regularly regarded as a pinnacle of human achievement and an enduring testament to human culture” (Kaplan, 2009, p. 423; see also Steven, 2006) and has played a role in how humans define themselves (Yan, 2013). This paper explores arguments for and against nonhuman musicality, research done on nonhuman animals´ (henceforth “animals”) musical perceptions and abilities, potentially different forms and understandings of musicality and further research. “If it turns out that music is a widespread phenomenon in several living species apart from man, this will very much call into question the definition of music, and more widely that of man and his culture, as well as the idea we have of the animal itself” (Mâche, 1992, p. 95).


Existing definitions or forms of music vary greatly between cultures (Cook, 1998), within societies and amongst individuals (Krause, 2012). Especially across species, the meaning of music becomes foggy (Raymond, 2000), as the difference between sound and noise can be subjective (Brouček, 2014). Some societies, having retained their traditional culture, may not use a specific term for “music” (Fritz and Koelsch, 2013). “Hence, if one tried to name a common denominator between what might be considered music in all cultures of the earth, there might be nothing at all, except that it is somehow about intentionally structured sound” (Fritz and Koelsch, 2013, p. 302; see also Fritz, 2010; Krause, 2012).


Music can be inspired from various sounds in our sonic environment, also known as a soundscape (Schafer, 1994). Sounds of living organisms, or biophony (Krause, 2012), and the geophysical environment, referred to as geophony (Krause, 2012), have influenced human music in many societies (Doolittle and Gingras, 2015). Bird songs, for example, play a role in the musical lives of the Kaluli of the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea (Rice, 2014; Howes, 2003; Feld, 1996). How the Kaluli, for example, understand and interpret these sounds, defined as vibrations within the hearing range of an organism (Roosth, 2009), in their soundscapes or mimic it in their own music, directly correlates with their acoustemology. An acoustemology, a combination of  “acoustic” and “epistemology” (Rice, 2015), can be understood as acoustic sensation, knowledge and imagination (Feld and Basso, 1996), as well as a way of being in a sonic environment (Friedner and Helmreich, 2012). Hence, someone with an acoustemology very different from that of the Kaluli, may perceive bird song quite differently.


This diversity of acoustemologies and complexity of musicality challenges the notion that musicality is a uniquely human trait. In the not too distant past, humans of ethnicities labeled as “primitive” or “animalistic” were believed to not have musicality (Krause, 2012; Yan, 2013) or other forms of art (de Waal, 2001). The Babenzélé pygmies of the Dzanga-Sangha forest of the Central African Republic (Krause, 2012), the Yanomami of Brazil (Krause, 2012), the Kaluli (Howes, 2003; Rice, 2015; Feld, 1996), the BaMbuti pygmies of the Ituri forest (Turnbull, 1961) and musicians in Ghana (Feld, 2014) are a few examples of societies whose music is inspired by the biophony and geophony which surrounds them and, partially because of this, were not considered musical.


Perhaps some of these societies do not believe that animals are musicians in the sense that human musicians are. Yet they seem to recognise the musicality in animal songs and sounds enough to implement them into their own music (Doolittle, 2008). Some scientists believe that, while some humans may perceive animals’ vocalisations and other sounds as musicality, this does not mean that animals perceive it this way (Rogers and Kaplan, 2007; Kaplan, 2009; Martinelli, 2008). It may prove difficult to prove otherwise. That being said, perhaps animals do possess musicality, because their songs are recognised as being musical by musicians (Martinelli, 2008). In other words, perhaps a being does not need to understand or reflect that he or she has musicality in order to possess it (Martinelli, 2008).


Human music often displays “(…) a unique level of complexity in organising musical structures – coordinating voices, developing themes, elaborating large-scale musical forms, and so on” (Higgins, 2012, p. 18). Interestingly, “complex bird songs (…) share many structures with human music, from similar forms of organization to similar scales and phrasing” (Rothenberg, 2006, p. XII). In addition, whales and dolphins can produce complex song sequences (Kaplan, 2009) and some whale songs contain recurring phrases that rhyme and can continue for up to twenty-three hours (Rothenberg, 2008). Many bird species can also rhythmically coordinate duets (Doolittle and Gingras, 2015) and some african apes use percussion “instruments” (Fitch, 2005).


Research done with zebra finches (Arnold et al., 1976; Konishi and Akutagawa, 1985; Margoliash and Fortune, 1992; Vicario and Yohay, 1993), canaries (Nottebohm, 1977), sparrows (Konishi, 1965) and a range of other songbirds (Nottebohm, 1980) have shown complex neural activity, auditory feedback, plasticity and development of song (Kaplan, 2009). These studies, although focusing on birds, act as examples that animals may also possess musicality. That being said, animals may not perform music as humans do (Brown, et al., 2001). Even so, in many animal species, “(…) rhythms and melodies exhibit several of the traits considered as typically musical” (Brown, et al, 2001, p. 473) and are being applied in clearly intentional sonic expressions (Higgins, 2012).


Music is often understood as being a species-specific trait of humans (Blacking, 1974; Higgins, 2012). “As (…) hallmarks of human uniqueness begin to crumble under the weight of emerging evidence of the abilities of animals, art, and specifically music, is among the last vestiges of human uniqueness” (Kaplan, 2009, p. 427). Musicality is often stated to be a highly intrinsic and defining feature of human culture (McDermott and Hauser, 2004). This may be leading scientists to approach musicality as a whole with a rather anthropocentric mindset. As Nagel (1974) mentions, humans will most likely never know what “(…) it is like for a bat to be a bat (…)” (p. 439). So how can a human know “(…) what they [animals] feel as they sing, listen, and sing again” (Rothenberg, 2006)?


Nonhuman primates, for example, seem to be sympathetic to tempo, yet indifferent to human-made music (McDermott and Hauser, 2007). Uhlenbroek (2002), observed a chimpanzee named Prof in Gombe:

“His foot was resting on a piece of hollow wood and after a few minutes I was startled to hear a very quiet, slow rhythm as he tapped it on the log. (…) He shifted position and started tapping the log with his hand. (…) It left me wondering about the origins of music” (pp. 72-73).

This suggests a rhythmic ability – without apparent practical use. Interestingly, foot-tapping, specifically, has also been observed in a sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita eleonora), while bobbing his or her head in synchrony (Patel et al., 2009).


Human-made music may not be relevant for other species (Snowdon, 2013), because they may have species-typical tempos, pitches or frequencies to express their emotional states (Altenmuller, et al., 2013). “(…) Music, as we know it, is a human construct made by and for humans based on our species’ developmental experience, vocalisations, perceptions, and cognition (…)” (Snowdon, 2013, p. 135). This can be observed in studies done with kenneled dogs (Kogan, et al., 2012; Bowman, et al., 2015). When different musical genres were played for these dogs, their reactions to each varied – at times quite significantly. Taking this into consideration, perhaps the apparent lack of musicality perceived in animals such as the dogs in these studies or primates (Zeigler and Marler, 2004), is caused by an aversion to human-made or otherwise specific music, but not to music that dogs or primates enjoy.


Gorillas, cotton-top tamarins (Saguinus oedipus) and common marmosets (Callithrix jacchus) have been observed to enjoy silence over human-made music (Wells, et al., 2006; McDermott and Hauser, 2007), although Brooker (2016) suggests that musical components can influence the behaviour of captive gorillas. This is mirrored by Videan et al. (2007), whose research indicates that captive chimpanzees have varied reactions to different songs and genres of music.Thus it is difficult to determine whether animals not responding to music are bored, unresponsive or insensitive (Heffner and Heffner, 2007). Could this lack of interest be caused by animals not hearing or appreciating the frequencies, pitches and tempos in human-made music? As Heffner and Heffner (2007) observed; “In our interactions with animals, we often assume that their hearing abilities are, if not identical to ours, at least quite similar” (p. 20). To equate such differences in hearing and appreciation as lack of musicality across species is questionable.


Similarly, some scientists argue that animals lack musicality due to evolution (Brown, et al., 2001; Miell and Macdonald, 2005). Animal songs and sounds are often developed and used for solely practical and communicative purposes (Kenneally, 2008), such as to impress mates (Brown, et al., 2001) and alert others to danger or resources. Humans, meanwhile, are thought to listen to and produce music purely for enjoyment. This neglects that much of the music humans listen to contains a message. Nevertheless, it is believed that, “(…) without the emergence of musicality our species would have seemed far less different from our evolutionary neighbours; without music, we might not have become fully us” (Miell and Macdonald, 2005, p. 41). Evolution as a whole likely played a role in the varied musical abilities observed in humans and animals. Vocal chords, for example, have evolved differently amongst species, which affects the capacity to “sing” and enables language and music for humans (Herzog, 1939; Miell and Macdonald, 2005).


Another common distinction between human and animal musicality is that humans also play music in isolation – purely for enjoyment rather than necessity. Yet, “(…) songbirds sing by themselves and practise (and not just in subsong) and quite a number of them also appear to appreciate species-foreign sounds and even melodies well enough to integrate them into their own song” (Kaplan, 2009, p. 426; see also Mathews, 2004; Chisholm, 1948; Roger and Kaplan, 2007).


Further research will shed more light on whether musicality is a uniquely human trait (Kaplan, 2009). While humans tend to engage in music (Kaplan, 2009; Gess, 2007), there is no strong evidence that animals do not possess musicality (Yan, 2013). Future studies based on larger numbers of varied species should broaden the field’s understanding of which tempos, pitches and frequencies different species enjoy. It should also be taken into account that perhaps not all humans possess musicality (such as some intellectually or emotionally disabled, someone in a coma or humans who lack musical ability) and that the same could be true for individual animals or species. If future research leads humans to understand musicality as not being a uniquely human trait, humans will need to revise their understanding of animal sensitivity, as well as their emotional and intellectual capabilities. This will hopefully lead to a change in how animals are treated and generally perceived.


In order to accurately study whether an animal is musical, scientists will need to  “(…) establish first its own hearing range and, more importantly, establish in which frequency range that species’ own communication naturally occurs” (Kaplan, 2009, p. 439; see also Heffner and Heffner, 2007). Neuroscientific research of the neural coding of sounds found in the human brain while listening and producing music (Zatorre, 2003) compared to those of other animals might bring new conclusions. Furthermore, collaborations between professional musicians, musicologists and researchers, may also lead to new insights in this field.


Musicality is a vast and complex subject. This paper summarised studies and perspectives on musicality, explored how music is perceived by animals and humans and the oscillating views on whether humans are unique in their musicality, as well as observations for future research. Hopefully this will inspire further discussion about musicality and consequently lead humans to observe music outside of their species. As Uhlenbroek (2002) nicely recounts: “(…) when the Bushmen of the Kalahari were asked about the origins of music by the writer Laurens van der Post, they looked puzzled and replied, ‘Can’t you hear the stars singing’” (Uhlenbroek, 2002, p. 73)?




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