archive copy of: PERSPECTIVE BIOLOGY AND MUSIC
The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music
Our world is filled with innumerable natural sounds, and from the earliest times humans have been intrigued and inspired by this “soundscape.” People who live close to nature perceive a wider range of sounds than those of us living in industrialized societies, who rely heavily on advances in sound technology. The sounds of whales in the ocean, for example, were first recorded in the 1940s, yet the Tlingit, Inuit, and other seafaring tribes have been hearing them through the hulls of their boats for millennia. Similarly, the ultralow frequency communications of elephants [HN1] have only just been recorded even though the Hutu and Tutsi tribes of central East Africa have incorporated these sounds into their songs and stories for centuries.
It is said that every known human culture has music. Music has been defined as patterns of sound varying in pitch and time produced for emotional, social, cultural, and cognitive purposes (1). Is music-making in humans defined by our genes? [HN2] Do other species show musical language and expression? If they do, what kinds of behavior invoke music-making in these animals? Is there evidence in the animal kingdom for the ability to create and recreate a musical language with established musical sounds? How are musical sounds used to communicate within and between species? Do musical sounds in nature reveal a profound bond between all living things?
The Music of Nature
Whales. The undersea songs of humpback whales [HN3] are similar in structure to bird and human songs and prove that these marine mammals are inveterate composers. If songs can be defined as “any rhythmic repeated utterance, whether by a bird, a frog, an insect, a whale or a human being” (2), then humpback whale songs [HN4] are constructed according to laws that are strikingly similar to those adopted by human composers.
· • Singing humpbacks use rhythms similar to those in our own music, yet they could just as easily formulate free-form, arrhythmic sounds.
· • They use phrases of a similar length to ours—a few seconds—and create themes out of several phrases before singing the next theme. Their songs could easily “grow” organically without the need for repetition but, like human composers, these marine mammals prefer to reiterate their material.
· • Whale songs fall between the length of a modern ballad and that of a movement of a symphony. Perhaps they have chosen the same length of performance as we have because, with their large cerebral cortex, they have a similar attention span to humans.
· • Even though they are capable of singing over a range of at least seven octaves, humpbacks use musical intervals between their notes that are similar to or the same as the intervals in our scales.
· • Whales mix percussive or noisy elements in their songs with relatively pure tones, and do so in a ratio similar to that used by humans in Western symphonic music.
· • In some whale songs, the overall song structure is similar to human compositions: a statement of theme, a section in which it is elaborated, and then a return to a slightly modified version of the original theme (that is, the ABA form) [HN5].
· • The tone and timbre of many whale notes are similar to human musical sounds. With an infinitude of possible sounds to choose from, whales could easily prefer to make sounds that we would deem unpleasant (roars, stutters, grunts).
· • Most surprisingly, humpback songs contain repeating refrains that form rhymes. This suggests that whales use rhyme in the same way that we do: as a mnemonic device to help them remember complex material (2).
The fact that whale and human music have so much in common even though our evolutionary paths have not intersected for 60 million years, suggests that music may predate humans—that rather than being the inventors of music, we are latecomers to the musical scene.
Birds. Advances in audio technology allowed the late Luis Baptista [HN6] to draw fascinating parallels between bird song [HN7] and human music (3). For instance, when birds compose songs they often use the same rhythmic variations, pitch relationships, permutations, and combinations of notes as human composers. Thus, some bird songs resemble musical compositions; for example, the canyon wren’s [HN8] trill cascades down the musical scale like the opening of Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Etude [HN9].
An examination of bird song reveals every elementary rhythmic effect found in human music (4). There are interval inversions, simple harmonic relations, and retention of melody with change of key [HN10]. Many birds regularly transpose motifs to different keys (5). Some birds pitch their songs to the same scale as Western music, one possible reason for human attraction to these sounds. For example, notes in the song of the wood thrush (Catharus mustelina) [HN11] are pitched such that they follow our musical scale very accurately (6). The interval between the first and second parts of the song of a ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) [HN12] is often a full octave. The canyon wren sings in the chromatic scale (which divides the octave into 12 semitones) (7) and the hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) [HN13] in the pentatonic scale (which consists of five different tones within the octave) [HN14] (8).
The simple melodic canon [HN15], a frequent device in human composition based on imitation, is reminiscent of the matched countersinging of many bird species. The Socorro mockingbird (Mimodes graysoni) [HN16] of Mexico sings a long series of short themes and its immediate neighbor will then respond to each theme with the identical theme (9). The Californian marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris) [HN17] may sing as many as 120 different themes in a fixed sequence. Each theme is matched by its neighbor in a leader-follower sequence (in music this is known as the call-response pattern) (10).
Not all bird sounds emanate from the vocal tract—some are produced with “instruments” such as special feather structures, others by the bird pounding on an object with a “preferred” resonance. Perhaps the most remarkable example of a bird using an instrument to produce sound is that of the palm cockatoo (Probosciger aterrimus) [HN18] of Northern Australia and New Guinea (11). Each male breaks a twig from a tree, then shapes it into a drumstick. The bird selects a hollow log with a preferred resonance and then, holding the stick with its foot, drums on the log as part of its courtship ritual.
Humans. Human music-making may vary dramatically between cultures, but the fact that it is found in all cultures suggests that there is a deep human need to create, perform, and listen to music.
It appears that our Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal ancestors [HN19] were as fond of music as we are. The discovery of prehistoric flutes [HN20] made of animal bone in France and Slovenia, ranging in age from 4000 to 53,000 years old, demonstrates that ancient civilizations devoted considerable time and skill to constructing complicated musical instruments (see the figure, below). Reconstructions of these prehistoric flutes suggest that they resemble today’s recorders [HN21] (12). It is possible that these ancient instruments even had a sound-producing plug (a fipple), making them easier to play but more difficult to make. Remarkably, many different types of scales can be played on reconstructed prehistoric flutes, and the sounds are pure and haunting. Given the sophistication of these 50,000-year-old instruments, it is quite possible that humans have been making music for several hundred thousand years.
No bones about Neanderthal music.
Reconstructions of (top) a 53,000-year-old Neanderthal flute made of bear bone found in Slovenia (possibly recorder type), (middle) a 30,000-year-old French deer bone flute (most likely recorder type), and (bottom) a 4000-year-old French vulture bone flute (definitely recorder type). CREDIT: JELLE ATEMA
The oral tradition of the Sami—the indigenous people of the northern Scandinavian Peninsula and the Kola Peninsula of present-day Russia—is contained in exclusively vocal songs called yoiks [HN22] (13). Yoiks—consisting of short repeated cycles of nonsense syllables without linguistic meaning—describe everyday life and always carry personal meaning for the yoiker. Although not described in words, the topic of a yoik may be a person, livelihood, an animal, a place, or an aspect of nature. It is believed that musical knowledge is acquired in part by the internalizing of frequently repeated patterns in a particular musical style, thereby enabling listeners to abstract recurring commonalities from the music that they hear (13). The ability to memorize and recognize musical patterns thereby creates learned oral traditions that are passed on to subsequent generations.
The ability to memorize and recognize musical patterns is also central to whale and bird music-making. These learning patterns may be vertical traditions (when a behavior is passed from parent to offspring), oblique traditions (when adults who are not blood-related pass the culture to younger generations), or horizontal traditions (when peers learn from each other).
Vertical musical tradition, such as the Sami yoik, is found in all human cultures and in several finch species, including the zebra finch (Taeniopygia castanostis) and the Northern bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) [HN23]. Oblique musical tradition is the central component of every music lesson and is probably the most widespread mode of learning songs among birds (14). Horizontal musical tradition is found on every children’s playground, in hand-raised juvenile chaffinches (Fringilla coelebs) [HN24], white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) [HN25], and in Anna’s hummingbirds (Calypte anna) [HN26], which when raised together develop very similar songs (14). Horizontal transfer of songs is also found among humpbacks—every whale in the same breeding area sings the same song and the song slowly evolves from year to year (2), but whales from different oceans sing completely different songs. By comparing any given whale song with a collection of song tapes, the year and the ocean from which the songs came can be identified. A recent report documented the extraordinary finding that the arrival of a few humpbacks from the Indian Ocean (Australia’s west coast) to the Pacific Ocean (Australia’s east coast) resulted in the resident Pacific whales ditching their own song in favor of the newcomer’s ditty, a transformation that was complete within 3 years (15).
Ambient sound is a central component of natural habitats. Abstracting the voice of a single creature from a habitat and trying to understand it out of context is a little like trying to comprehend an elephant by examining only a single hair at the tip of its tail (before cloning, of course). The ambient sound of an environment mimics a modern-day orchestra: the voice of each creature has its own frequency, amplitude, timbre, and duration, and occupies a unique niche among the other musicians (16). This “animal orchestra” or biophony represents a unique sound grouping for any given biome and sends a clear acoustical message.
Musical sounds form an exciting, natural conduit between members of our own species, between our species and others, and between the arts and sciences. By looking at musical commonalities, our understanding of music is enlarging, and by viewing musical sounds as an intuitive, nonverbal form of communication, we can better understand our own development in a biodiverse world.
It has been postulated that there is an unproven (and probably unprovable) concept called mathematical Platonism, which supposes that there is a universal mathematics awaiting discovery. Is there a universal music awaiting discovery, or is all music just a construct of whatever mind is making it—human, bird, whale? The similarities among human music, bird song, and whale song tempt one to speculate that the Platonic alternative may exist—that there is a universal music awaiting discovery.
It is not known when the ancient art of making music first began. But, if it is as ancient as some believe, this could explain why we find so much meaning and emotion in music even though we cannot explain why it makes us feel the way it does. Such an impenetrable vagueness about this most basic of human creations seems to signal that the roots of music lie closer to our ancient lizard brain than to our more recent reasoning cortex, that music has a more ancient origin even than human language.
HyperNotes Related Resources on the World Wide Web
Also in this issue is a related Enhanced Perspective by M. Tramo titled “Music of the hemispheres.”
Guide to Animal Sounds on the Net provides links to Internet resources.
WhaleNet, an educational Web site focused on whales and marine research, is sponsored by Wheelock College, Boston, with support from the National Science Foundation. A resource page for sounds and bio-acoustics information and links is included.
The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (CLO) offers an online bird guide with sound files and sounds of the weekfrom the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds; an audio of the musician wren (Cyphorhinus arada) is included. The CLO’s Bioacoustics Research Program develops and applies new techniques for recording and analyzing animal sounds; information about whale, bird, and elephant communication research is provided.
1. The Oakland Zoo provides an introduction (with a sound file) to the African elephant. The Elephant Information Repository offers an introduction to elephant senses. CLO’s Bioacoustics Research Program offers an introduction to the elephant infrasound research of K. Payne. ABC News offers a 1998 feature on Payne’s elephant research titled “Listening to elephants: Animals communicate infrasonically.”
3. NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory provides an introduction to whales, dolphins, and porpoises; a presentation on humpback whales is included. Animal Diversity Web, maintained by the Museum of Zoology of the University of Michigan, provides information about the humpback whale. Wildfacts from the BBC Online has an entry for the humpback whale. The Hawaii Whale Research Foundation provides information about humpback whale natural history. Earthtrust, Kailua, HI, offers a presentation on humpback whales. The Island Marine Institute Whale Resource Center, Lahaina, Maui, HI, offers information on the behavior of humpback whales. Virtual Whales from Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, is a visualization project to develop animation and sounds to assist in interpreting the foraging behaviors of Pacific humpback whales.
4. The National Geographic Society makes available a National Public Radio presentation on humpback whales and their songs; included are an excerpt and audio from the January 1979 National Geographic article “Humpbacks: Their mysterious songs.” The Newfoundland and Labrador Web Site offers a presentation (with audio files) about humpback whales. The Whale Center of New England provides information about humpback whales and audio files of humpback whale calls. The Whale Acoustics Project is a joint study of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory and the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory; an overview of the humpback whale and a selection of humpback whale vocalizations is offered. CLO’s Bioacoustics Research Program offers a presentation on whale vocalizations. Nature provides a 5 November 1999 Science Update by P. Ball titled “Sounding out the science of whale song.”
6. The California Academy of Sciences provides a profile of Luis Baptista. National Public Radio’s Living on Earthhad an appreciation of Baptista by L. Gravitz titled “Birds and Beethoven” as part of the 28 July 2000 broadcast. The WhyFiles Music of Sound includes a section about Baptista’s presentation on the science of music and natural sound at the February 2000 AAAS annual meeting. BIRDNET offers an obituary of Baptista.
7. Bird Song Files of Selected Species, maintained by S. Hopp, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Arizona, provides links to bird song resources on the Internet. The Amazing World of Birds offers presentations on birds and hearing and bird sounds. T. L. George, Department of Wildlife, Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA, offers lecture notes on bird song for an ornithology course. C. Evans, Animal Behaviour Laboratory, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, offers a presentation on song learning as part of a series of animal behavior lectures. G. Jacobs, Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience, Montana State University, Bozeman, provides lecture notes on birdsong as a model system for language for a neuroethology course; lecture notes on the physiology of the song system are also provided. M. van Staaden, Department of Biological Sciences, Bowling Green State University, offers lecture notes (and part two) on bird song for a neuroethology course. The August-September 1996 issue of National Wildlife had an article about bird song by P. Nelson titled “A song for every occasion.”
8. Animal Diversity Web provides information (with sound files) about the canyon wren. The online field guide to birds available from eNature.com has an entry (with a sound file) for the canyon wren. Southern California Natural History, a multimedia textbook provided by H. Towner, Department of Biology, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, includes information (with a sound file) about the canyon wren.
9. The ChopinFiles Web site provides information about Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude and an audio excerpt of the music. J. Smeet’s Classical Composers Database provides a biography of Frédéric Chopin with links to Internet resources.
11. The Patuxent Bird InfoCenter has an entry (with a sound file) for the wood thrush. The Cornell online bird guide includes an entry (with a sound file) for the wood thrush. The eNature.com field guide to birds has an entry (with a sound file) for the wood thrush.
12. An entry (with a sound file) for the ruby-crowned kinglet is included in the Patuxent Bird InfoCenter. The eNature.com field guide to birds has an entry for the ruby-crowned kinglet. Animal Diversity Web provides sound recordings of the ruby-crowned kinglet.
13. The Patuxent Bird InfoCenter provides information (with a sound file) about the hermit thrush. The Cornell online bird guide has an entry (with a sound file) for the hermit thrush. The eNature.com field guide to birds has an entry (with sound file) for the hermit thrush. Animal Diversity Web provides sound recordings of the hermit thrush.
14. The Penguin Dictionary of Music, available from xrefer, defines chromatic and pentatonic scales. Britannica. com provides an Encyclopædia Britannica overview of scales and introductions to the diatonic, chromatic, and pentatonic scales.
17. The Patuxent Bird InfoCenter has an entry (with a sound file) for the marsh wren. The eNature.com field guide to birds has an entry (with sound file) for the marsh wren. Animal Diversity Web provides a photo and sound recording of the marsh wren.
18. About.com Birding/Wild Birds offers a presentation on the palm cockatoo. The Smithsonian National Zoological Park offers a presentation on the palm cockatoo. The Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Garden, Columbia, SC, provides information about the palm cockatoo. Earthwatch Radio from the University of Wisconsin presents a feature on palm cockatoo drumming.
19. The Encyclopædia Britannica article on human evolution has sections on Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals. A collection of links to Internet resources on Cro-Magnons is provided by T. Roufs, College of Liberal Arts, University of Minnesota, Duluth. Neanderthals and Modern Humans — A Regional Guide is maintained by S. Brown. Neandertals: A Cyber Perspective is a student Web project by K. Ramanan, Indiana State University; the presentation on Neanderthal art includes a section on the flute.
20. The Institute of Archeaology of the Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts makes available the initial report about the Neanderthal flute by I. Turk, J. Dirjec, and B. Kavur titled “The oldest musical instrument in Europe discovered in Slovenia?” The Exploritorium in San Francisco offers a 21 February 2000 dispatch from the AAAS annual meeting by M. Miller titled “Music of the Neanderthals.” MSNBC.com offers a 21 February 2000 feature by A. Boyle titled “Listening to the sounds of science: From ancient flutes to flame-based music.” The 22 March 2000 Science Update radio broadcast on the Neanderthal flute and related resources is available on the AAAS Science NetLinks Web site. The WhyFiles Music of Soundincludes a section on the Neanderthal flute. A musicological analysis of the Neanderthal flute is provided by R. Fink; an update is included. The September 1997 issue of Scientific American had a Science and the Citizen feature by K. Wong titled “Neanderthal notes: Did ancient humans play modern scales?” Brookhaven National Laboratory offers a presentation titled “9,000-year-old flutes from Jiahu, Henan Province, China.” ABC News had a feature about this discovery titled “Ancient flute plays on.”
22. The Finnish Music Information Centre makes available an article by H. Laitinen titled “The many faces of the yoik.” The May 1999 issue of the online magazine Folkworld had an article by U. Länsman titled “Sámi culture and the yoik.” The Sámi of Far Northern Europe is a collection of links to Internet resources provided on the Arctic Circle Web site. The Euromosaic Report Web Site offers information about the Sami and links to Internet resources.
23. H. Williams, Biology Department, Williams College, Williamstown, MA, provides information about the zebra finch and its song on her Bird Songs and Bird Brains Web page and offers recordings in the Zebra Finch Song Archive. The Laboratory of Comparative Psychoacoustics, Department of Psychology, University of Maryland, offers a presentation on the zebra finch and its vocalizations. Britannica.com provides an Encyclopædia Britannica introduction to the bullfinch. Animal Diversity Web offers information about the Eurasian bullfinch(also known as the common or Northern bullfinch). The BBC’s Wildfacts has an entry (with a sound file) for the bullfinch. A. Massi’s European Birds: Songs and Sonagrams has an entry for the song of the Eurasian bullfinch.
24. Robinson Research’s World of Knowledge offers a presentation on the chaffinch. The BBC’s Wildfacts offers an entry (with a sound file) for the chaffinch. A. Massi’s European Birds: Songs and Sonagrams has an entry for the song of the chaffinch.
25. The Cornell online bird guide includes an entry (with a sound file) for the white-crowned sparrow. The eNature.com field guide to birds has an entry (with a sound file) for the white-crowned sparrow. The Spring 1999 issue of California Wild, published by the California Academy of Sciences, had an article by L. Baptista about the dialects of the white-crowned sparrow; a Web presentation on the white-crowned sparrow and its song is also provided. D. Nelson, Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics, Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University, offers a presentation on song learning in the white-crowned sparrow.
27. P. Gray is at the National Musical Arts, National Academy of Sciences. B. Krause is at Wild Sanctuary, Inc. J. Atema is in the Department of Biology, Boston University, and the Boston University Marine Program, Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, MA. R. Payne is at Ocean Alliance. C. Krumhansl is in the Department of Psychology, Cornell University. L. Baptista was in the Department of Ornithology and Mammalogy, California Academy of Sciences.
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References and Notes
The BioMusic Program is a program of National Musical Arts (NMA), the resident ensemble of the National Academy of Sciences. The program emerged from NMA’s involvement in the National Forum on BioDiversity conference co-hosted by the National Academy of Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution in 1986. It now serves as a think tank for a diverse group of scientists and musicians. The BioMusic Program is a unique conduit between art and science, as it seeks to examine music in all species and to explore and understand its powerful role in all living things. This Perspective summarizes presentations at the BioMusic Symposium held as part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting (17 to 22 February 2000, Washington, DC). We dedicate this Perspective to our colleague Dr. Luis Baptista (deceased July 2000) [AAAS meeting program].
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, Whale Songs: Musicality or Mantra? BioMusic Symposium, AAAS Annual Meeting, 2000.
1. L. F. Baptista,
2. R. Keister
, Why Bird Song Is Sometimes Like Music, BioMusic Symposium, AAAS Annual Meeting, 2000.
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, Old Bone Flutes: Tracing the Origins of Human Music, BioMusic Symposium, AAAS Annual Meeting, 2000.
1. C. L. Krumhansl
2. et al.
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3. C. L. Krumhansl
4. et al.
, Cognition75, 13 (2000).
1. L. F. Baptista,
2. S. L. L. Gaunt
, in Social Influences on Vocal Development, M. Hausberger, C. Snowdon, Eds. (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 1997), pp. 23-40;
3. L. F. Baptista
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, Neth. J. Zool. 43, 17 (1993) [publisher’s information].
1. M. J. Noad
2. et al.
, Nature 408, 537 (2000).
1. B. Krause
, The Niche Hypothesis: How Animals Taught Us to Dance and Sing, BioMusic Symposium, AAAS Annual Meeting, 2000.
Vol 291, Issue 5501
05 January 2001
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