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Pet sounds

A psychologist and cellist found that Tamarin monkeys prefer their own music to Metallica, evidence of music’s inherent evolutionary importance.
November 15, 2012

What: “The Evolution of Music,” a presentation by professor Charles Snowdon

When: 4:30 p.m., Friday

Where: 125 Nolte Center, 315 Pillsbury Dr. SE, Minneapolis


Describing the music composer David Teie created, professor Charles Snowdon gives a sharp critique.

“It’s really high-pitched, and it’s shrill,” Snowdon said. “It kind of reminds me of someone scraping their nails on a blackboard or something.”

Thankfully, the music’s not meant for human ears. Teie, a cellist for the National Symphony Orchestra, created the piercing tune for a colony of cotton-top tamarins, an endangered South American monkey species.

Snowdon, a psychology and zoology professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, presents “The Evolution of Music” on Friday to discuss the fruits of his musically inspired collaboration with Teie — a case for music’s inherent evolutionary function.

“I came up with a theory on how music affects the emotions,” Teie said. “If I was right, then I should be able to write music that would be effective for a species other than human.”

After Teie explained his theory via email, Snowdon sent the cellist sound files of two disparate tamarin calls — one intended to threaten others, and another intended to signify safety. For humans, the sounds are almost indistinguishable. Teie had to slow the calls down and transpose them for analysis.

“That thing that sounds like just a chirp — if you slow it down, take it down three octaves, it was basically an E-flat major scale,” Teie said. “Very regular. It was a shockingly tonal call. Basically it’s not unlike analyzing music.”

“When he slowed them down to human-hearing range, he began hearing all sorts of musical structures in their calls,” Snowdon said.

Based on theoretical ideas — that fast-paced, staccato notes will be arousing, while long, legato notes will be calming for the monkeys — Teie soon crafted his own inter-species compositions for Snowdon’s monkey colony. The music worked. The monkeys became calmer when introduced to the “high-pitched” sample Snowdon described. Conversely, the monkeys were agitated with Teie’s “heavy-metal” tamarin music.

“This was all composed for cello,” Snowdon said. “Turns out if you take the tamarin music and slow it down and bring it down three octaves lower, it’s in the same vocal range as the cello.”

The control for Snowdon’s experiments, music for humans by Metallica and Tool, didn’t induce behavioral change compared to the music that Teie made. Snowdon expanded the ideas to explain music’s universal evolutionary role, important in the emotional function music provides.

“Harmonic notes are likely to be pleasing and represent affiliation or confidence,” Snowdon said. “Dissonant sounds or noisy sounds are likely to be associated with fear and aggression.”

The soothing tamarin music Teie composed sounds so harsh to humans because of the vast difference in resting heart rate.

“The monkeys, we hypothesized, would be more likely to be calmed by something closer to their resting heart rate, which is about 180 to 200 beats per minute,” Snowdon said.

After the popular response to Snowdon and Teie’s research, the two set their sights on cats after learning that pet-owners often think their beloved animals prefer a certain genre of music. One woman Snowdon met said her dog loves country music.

“I said I can come up with two other explanations for why you’re dog might seem happy to see you,” Snowdon said. “One is you’re finally going to turn off the [expletive] radio, and secondly, dogs are the only pets that we have that aren’t allowed to pee during the day while we’re away.”

Teie used the same techniques drawing from the tamarin sessions to compose cat music, but this time with a pedal drum swishing to imitate the sound of suckling, an important sound in a cat’s emotional brain development, Teie said. The findings from Snowdon and Teies’ cat experiments are yet to be published, but the duo’s collaboration points to an enduring misunderstanding about music’s universality.

Laboratories as well as pet-owners play music for animals thinking it provides enrichment for them — a false idea that their music research shows.

“Most primate facilities now require music in the background as a kind of psychological enrichment for monkeys,” Snowdon said. “And yet the monkey music that we make sounds really dreadful to humans.”

Music can cross species boundaries, but the music for tamarins and cats differs in tempo and transposed by key — tonal differences are dependent on biological and developmental differences. But the fundamental connection lies in the emotional evolutionary function of music, one that Snowdon and Teie continue to explore.

“We use music to change our moods and change how we are feeling about ourselves,” Snowdon said. “This might go way back to other species. So both the cats and the monkeys are affected by the same features that we think are important for human music affecting us emotionally.”

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