Picky Primates: Monkeys Have Species-Specific Musical Tastes

Photo Credit: Bryce Richter, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Unlike birds, multiple studies have shown that monkeys don’t respond to music. A George Winston album won’t make them miss the holidays and Metallica won’t jumpstart a monkey mosh pit (weirdly enough the opposite happens, they become extremely mellow). But a research team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison has discovered that perhaps monkeys just have more specific musical tastes; that perhaps they just don’t like our music.

The team’s study, published in this month’s Biology Letters, found that while cotton-top tamarins were impassive listeners to Nine Inch Nails, Tool and Samuel Barber, they responded to music inspired by actual tamarin communication. It seems just as monkeys’ screeches aren’t soothing to our ears, modern rock isn’t soothing to theirs.

After listening to recordings of a monkey colony run by Charles Snowdon, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and longtime researcher of primate behavior, David Teie, a cellist in the National Symphony Orchestra and professor at the University of Maryland, noticed that certain cotton-top tamarin calls seemed to indicate certain emotions – particularly anger and relaxation. Using specific pitch, tone and tempo features found in cotton-top tamarins’ calls, a cello and his voice, Teie developed 30-second clips (click here to listen to a sample) of “monkey music” associated with fear and calmness.

Snowdon and Teie tested the clips on 14 cotton-top tamarins who had never listened to music before. The monkeys that listened to the fear music became agitated and upset, showing signs of anxiety by urinating or scent marking. On the other hand, those that listened to the calm music slowed down their movements, ate more, and become more social.

These findings are the first clues about the evolutionary roots of humans’ emotional reactions to music, a major milestone after years of dead end research. They also shed light on the importance of animal communication (particularly that it seems to be used for much more than just sharing information) and its similarities to human communication. “The emotional components of music and animal calls might be very similar,” Snowdon said in a statement. “And from an evolutionary perspective, we are finding that the note patterns, dissonance and timing are important for communication affective states in both animals and people.”

The researchers told Wired that their next step is to see what other animals respond to species-specific music. Teie, who has already composed music specifically meant for cats, has also been in touch with the National Zoo about creating recordings for animals in captivity.

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