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Is music an exclusively human thing? A new study says no

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Charles Darwin once speculated that all animals, beyond just humans, may share the ability to perceive melody and rhythm.

HENKJAN HONING: He was very optimistic, but the empirical evidence is still very meager.

CHANG: Henkjan Honing at the University of Amsterdam says although the evidence is slim, there are a few studies out there that support Darwin's idea.

HONING: There are some talents that we - some skills, some basic mechanisms that we share with other animals. And one of those - sort of without it, it is actually impossible to make music, and that is this notion of beat perception.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Beat perception. One example - Ronan, the disco-dancing sea lion who bobs her head very enthusiastically to Earth, Wind and Fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF EARTH, WIND AND FIRE SONG, "BOOGIE WONDERLAND")

SHAPIRO: Seriously, watch the video.

CHANG: I will. And then there's Snowball, the cockatoo who puts most humans to shame groovin' (ph) to the Backstreet Boys.

(SOUNDBITE OF BACKSTREET BOYS SONG, "EVERYBODY")

SHAPIRO: Well, now a new study adds more evidence to the idea that other animals can synchronize to a beat not just through dancing but through song.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHITE-HANDED GIBBON WHOOPING)

SHAPIRO: That's the sound of a white-handed gibbon, a type of small ape.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHITE-HANDED GIBBON WHOOPING)

ANDREA RAVIGNANI: We look at rhythmic patterns produced by individuals and what we see is a strong presence of temporal regularity - so tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, like an analog clock or the beating of a metronome.

CHANG: Andrea Ravignani is at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands. He and his colleagues recorded gibbons in a reserve in Thailand and in zoos in Italy.

SHAPIRO: And in addition to learning that gibbons could keep a beat singing solo, they also found that males and females could sync up when belting out songs at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHITE-HANDED GIBBONS WHOOPING)

RAVIGNANI: And we see that they do influence each other, and they overlap above chance. So they are more synchronous than not.

SHAPIRO: The work was published by The Royal Society.

CHANG: Ravignani says the study bolsters the idea that the building blocks of human musical and rhythmic abilities can be found in other species.

RAVIGNANI: Probably there is no species with the whole Lego blocks that constitute human musicality and human rhythmicity, but each and every one of them can be at least found in another species.

HONING: And that's why this study is so important for our field - because it is an example within the primates that we share beat perception and synchronization with another primate, as Darwin predicted.

SHAPIRO: But Henkjan Honing points out that gibbons are not singing to entertain.

HONING: Gibbons - they do these duets because they need to bond. This is the way they show to each other that they are a couple and they show to the environment that it's their territory and that they are a couple.

SHAPIRO: He says studies like this could untangle the evolutionary origins of music, which, after all, helps humans sync up, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CARTERS SONG, "APES***") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gabe O'Connor
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.