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Music Makes Monkeys Emotional—Just Not Human Music

September 04, 2009 07:00 AM
by Haley A. Lovett
A composer and a scientist have found that animals respond to music derived from their own vocal communication, a discovery that could make life for captive animals much more pleasant.

Monkey’s Prefer Silence to Human Music, but Respond to “Monkey Music”

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Until now, many scientists believed that music had little effect on animals, although some pet owners and zookeepers have attempted to play “relaxing” music for the creatures, knowing that music can affect the emotions of humans. But a new study, published in Biology Letters, has found that tamarin monkeys do respond to music—just not to human music.

Composer David Teie of the University of Maryland and psychologist Charles Snowdon of the University of Wisconsin-Madison teamed up for the study. According to Hadley Leggett of Wired, Teie composed “songs” using the base elements of the sounds made by tamarin monkeys, such as speed and pitch. Different “songs” were based on different sounds: warning sounds, calming sounds, etc. 

When the scientists played the musical compositions for the tamarins, they found that the monkeys responded to the monkey music similar to how they would have responded to monkey calls of the same nature (they became more anxious after warning-based music, and more relaxed after relaxation call-based music). Although the monkeys showed little response to most human music, a clip from the band “Metallica” did have an unexpected calming effect.

Jenny Lauren Lee of Science News reported that although the tamarin music would not necessarily be pleasant to the human ear, as it tends to have a much higher pitch, there are some base similarities in what makes for calming or anxiety-inducing music for both humans and tamarins, which suggested to Snowden that there may be shared evolutionary roots of sound among the two species. 

Recently, scientists studied laughter in infant primates (including humans) and found that some of the great apes studied did in fact “laugh” as a controlled way of communicating, like humans do. This suggested that laughter and emotional expression might have a common ancestral root.

As for animal music, according to Wired, Teie has already composed music for cats, and is working with some zoos in an effort to create music suited for specific species to help relax them in captivity.

Related Topic: The powerful effect of music on humans

In April 2009, researchers at Northwestern University found that musicians were able to more quickly perceive emotion in sounds than non-musicians. The ability to process and interpret sounds has long been problematic for children with autism and Asperger’s. The authors of the study concluded that the study of music may be beneficial for children affected by Asperger's or autism.

Intense music therapy may soon be approved in the U.S. to treat a variety of conditions including hypertension, depression, insomnia and chronic pain. Researchers in Austria have been studying the effects of “musical pharmacology” by concentrating certain elements of music into original “songs” and having patients listen on a regular basis.

The strong association between music, emotion and memory may hold the key for future Alzheimer’s treatments. Researchers found that the area of the brain activated when listening to music is the prefrontal cortex—the same area associated with general intelligence and personality—and that this area remains intact longer than other areas of the brain when a person is affected by Alzheimer’s.
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