When researchers reported recently that they had managed to get captive bonobo apes to pick up a beat and play along briefly on a drum, it was merely the latest entry in what has begun to look like a multispecies musical extravaganza. Just in the past year or so, scientists have given us a California sea lion bobbing its head to “Boogie Wonderland” and a chimp in Japan spontaneously playing a keyboard in time with a simple beat. Before that, there were romantically inclined mosquitoes harmonizing their whining wing beats.
The study of animal musicality goes back at least to Charles Darwin. He noted that rhythm is everywhere in the biological world, leading naturally, he thought, to the rise of music. Scientific interest got a boost with recordings of whale song in the 1960s and has grown dramatically in this century, thanks in part to new technologies for viewing how brains respond to music.
Some scientists believe careful looking will reveal widespread musicality. For instance, Patricia Gray, a biomusic researcher at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro who co-authored the bonobo study, says getting bonobos to pick up the beat required accommodating their preferred tempo (fast) and creating a social setting with a lot of encouragement. It also demanded a custom drum able to withstand “some major jumping on the drumhead, being peed on, chewed and hosed down.”
But if they truly possess a natural ability to synchronize their movements to a beat, says psychologist Aniruddh Patel at Tufts University, the bonobos should be able to match varying tempos, without seeing the human setting the beat. That hasn’t happened so far in nonhuman primates, whether bonobos, chimps or monkeys. Contrary to Darwin, Patel believes that the ability to track new and changing beats occurs only in certain species with complex vocal learning—birds, cetaceans, elephants, bats. “Freestyle dog” dancing may be a YouTube hit, but it doesn’t prove dogs feel the beat, he says.
What about humans? The evolutionary biologist (and amateur musician) W. Tecumseh Fitch suggests that rhythmic communication came first for us and served as a building block for language itself. Language sidelined music and song, making them “‘living fossils’ of an earlier communicative stage of humanity,” he writes. No longer essential, music was free to become “a rich, unfettered playground for creative expression.”