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The search for musicality in animals
Humans are musical creatures. Of all of the cultures we know existed there has never been one without music, and yet we understand surprisingly little about where this affinity comes from and what purpose it serves. Does music make us human, or are there other musical species as well?
Henkjan Honing is convinced that we are not alone — that musicality has a long evolutionary history and should be found in our near, if not distant, relatives. And he is not the only one: writing in 1871, Charles Darwin hypothesised that ‘the perception, if not enjoyment, of musical cadences and of rhythm is probably common to all animals and no doubt depends on the common physiological nature of their nervous systems.’ According to Honing, in order to experience music as such, animals must be able to perceive beats and recognise melodies. These two abilities make up ‘musicality’. If we share musicality with other animals, what can this tell us about where it comes from and about ourselves as a species?
Writing in a style that is accessible and charming, Honing offers a personal account of his search for answers. Beginning in 2009, we follow him to research labs in Mexico, Japan, the United States and the Netherlands, as he meets and collaborates with behavioural and neuro-biologists.
Aside from a behind-the-scenes look at the realities of scientific research, we share in Honing’s doubts, his successes and setbacks, as well as the surprising turns in his research. He details studies with macaque monkeys, zebra finches and chimpanzees. We also witness the startling implications introduced by Snowball, the now world-famous cockatoo that bobs to the Backstreet Boys, and Ronan, a Californian sea lion who loves the band Earth, Wind & Fire.
The journey is as exciting as it is fascinating, and Honing paints his and his colleagues ground-breaking work in an emerging field. In the process he shines a light on many questions: How do these animals perceive music? Does music precede language or is it a by-product, along with language, of our musicality? More than just a cultural luxury, can music and our ability to process music be a fundamental part of our biological heritage?