Saturday, June 28, 2014

Animals Ain't Got Rhythm, but (Some) Humans Do

Animals ain't got Rhythm, but (some) Humans do.

Do animals have music? Do dogs appreciate piano playing? Typically not. Do even birds, who sing so well, engage in choruses or appreciate songs not their own? Not really. And to hear jays and crows going at it can make one want to run and hide. Insects can carry on very rhythmic thrums of specific kinds, even in choruses, such as the crickets. But the mental bandwidth is such as to prohibit consideration of this monotonous output as music.

Sound is certainly important to virtually all birds and mammals, but the coding is static, not flexible, the meaning very limited. It conveys intense emotion, just not in what we understand typically as music, which includes rhythm as an essential element. So while we regard our own music as quite primal- a direct communication of emotion prior to its elaboration as speech or its perception by other modes- it combines primal emotion with something that is not universal at all: the language of music.

A recent review looked at the capacity of non-humans to learn and appreciate rhythm. It cites "... what biologist Tecumseh Fitch has called “the paradox of rhythm.” As Fitch notes, “Periodicity and entrainment seem to be among the most basic features of living things, yet the human ability (and proclivity) to entrain our motor output to auditory stimuli appears to be very rare.”"
"While the rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) could successfully listen to two metronome clicks and then reproduce the same interval by tapping twice on a key, they had great difficulty learning to tap in synchrony with a metronome of several beats. Specifically, each monkey took over a year of training to learn the metronome task, and when tested, their taps were always a few hundred ms after each metronome click rather than aligned with it."

The author thinks that our evolution of speech was intimately connected to musical and rhythmic ability:
"Specifically, I proposed the “vocal learning and rhythmic synchronization hypothesis” (henceforth, “vocal learning hypothesis”), which suggests that the capacity to synchronize with a musical beat resulted from changes in brain structure driven by the evolution of complex vocal learning. Complex vocal learning is learning to produce complex vocal signals based on auditory experience and sensory feedback. This is a rare trait in nature: most animals (including all nonhuman primates) have a small set of instinctive vocalizations which they can modify in only modest ways in terms of their acoustic patterning."

Parrots provide some comparative evidence for this. They can both learn complex and responsive vocalization, and can keep time with a tempo from a metronome or music, unlike our primate cousins, who are virtually incapable of doing so, even after lengthy training. But parrots do so poorly, (not having music in the wild), so humans remain unique not only in our complexity of music, but in the very basic ability to enjoy and propagate rhythm. The author speculates a bit about the brain anatomy of this, pointing out what are thought to be relevant fiber pathways that are elaborated in humans, but this is all quite schematic to date.

One might hypothesize that for wild animals, keeping rhythm impairs their ability to stay vigilent, one of their highest goals. Entrainment is a sort of hypnosis, which we humans seem to love, along with other mind-altering practices such as drugs of many descriptions. We have given up a measure of individual vigilence in favor of the imaginative and social benefits of daydreaming, music-making, dancing, novel-writing ... many forms of social glue and mental exercise that have higher-level benefits.

  • On beat-deficient humans.
  • Patriots for anarchy.
  • On the importance of ideology in capitalism.
  • Science: truth, or just another ideology?
  • Deregulation is criminogenic.
  • Pushing on a string... in recessions, forget about monetary policy, go fiscal.
  • This week in Das Capital: "The over-work of the employed part of the working class swells the ranks of the reserve, whilst conversely the greater pressure that the latter by its competition exerts on the former, forces these to submit to overwork and to subjugation under the dictates of capital. The condemnation of one part of the working class to enforced idleness by the overwork of the other part, and the converse, become a means of enriching individual capitalists, and accelerates at the same time the production of the industrial reserve army on a scale corresponding with the advance of social accumulation. ... Taking them as a whole, the general movements of wages are exclusively regulated by the expansion and contraction of the industrial reserve army, and these again correspond to the periodic changes of the industrial cycle."
  • Economic graph of the week. It graphs the correlation between political polarization and economic inequality, in the US.


  1. Jacob Bronowski argued that the "delay between the receipt of the incoming signal and the sending of a signal out [is] the central and formative feature in the evolution of language." [Human and Animal Language 1967] This simple hypothesis seems to be largely missing in more recent thinking.

    Fitch, for example, is being overly specific to look for human uniqueness in rhythm. A simpler hypothesis is that repetition is obvious practice for animals that are learning to use *sequences* to cope with their environment.

  2. Hi, Mr. Thomas- Thank you for your comment. But I am not quite sure what you are saying. Are we the only animals that use sequences to cope with our environment?

    It came to me after I wrote the post that starlings are an excellent candidate for animal musical ability. They have amazingly flexible voices, are very social, and may well be trainable in this way.

    And for language, why is the delay so crucial? It is the immense coordination required to sequence thoughts into speech, and likewise to decode auditory streams that are far more complex than stereotyped cries that seems more difficult. Not to mention the conceptual grounding one needs for recursive language and reality modeling. The feedback issue is important, but I doubt the most important one.

    With appreciation...

  3. The difference I think is looking a language as it is now versus exploring the simplest possible hypothesis for the beginning of language. How did we *begin* to get elaborate reality modeling and recursive speech?

    Proto-humans got some edge in memory - some neural buffer loop - that allowed the earliest "reflection" on the best response to the situtation. This was the building block of language (and consciousness). This allowed evolution to put the immediate affect/effect sequences that all mammal share in service of progressively more articulate choice. Speech is not fundamentally more complex than other animal motion patterns. It is this possibility of reflection that makes speech unique. It is not the recursiveness of speech that is interesting but the recursiveness of awareness.

    Regarding rhythm, given this idea of the delay, these proto-humans discovered rhythm early in this process - just delay and repeat. Chanting and drumming may well have served to to entrain this simplest use of the delay - socially and genetically. But that is not to say that rhythm is the fundamental trait.