Monkeying With Music's Impact On Apes

Cellist David Teie discusses research that says monkeys and apes may respond emotionally to music. Biomusic researcher Patricia Gray talks about apes that have jammed in studio with Peter Gabriel and Paul McCartney.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: Sounds a little bit like a jazz improv? Maybe. But it's not music made by any human. For the rest of the hour, we're going to talk about a new genre of music that's being developed. You might call it primate music. It won't top any charts, but some scientists say it can help us understand the origins of music. It's the latest research on the musical abilities of monkeys and apes. And it shows that they use music, like we do, as a social way to express emotion and as a mood setter.

First up, we're going to be talking about an ongoing study of some musically inclined bonobos. Researchers with the Great Ape Trust are working with four bonobos, giving them a variety of instruments and playing music alongside them. And they found that the bonobos are able to understand elements of music like pitch and rhythm and timing, and they even have favorite - they have favorite instruments and their styles of music. The music they play isn't something you'd want to listen to on your way to work, maybe.

But according to Patricia Gray, a musician and a biomusic researcher, it's all about the process of music-making for the apes. She is clinical professor and senior research scientist of biomusic at the Music Research Institute. That's at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. And she's also a musician.

Thanks for being with us today.

Dr. PATRICIA GRAY (Clinical Professor and Senior Research Scientist of Biomusic, University of North Carolina at Greensboro): It's a pleasure to be with you, Ira.

FLATOW: Tell me about your work. How did you get started in this?

Dr. GRAY: Well, it's actually a very interesting story. I've spent a great deal of my professional life on a piano bench as a pianist, and also serving as the artistic director of the resident ensemble at the National Academy of Sciences. And as you can imagine, being a musician in residence at the National Academy of Sciences, it provides you with a very interesting intersection between the arts and sciences. And I'm very fond of telling people who are sometimes surprised that the Academy had a resident ensemble.

I like to quote Dr. Frank Press, one of the former presidents of the Academy, who was quoted as saying that he felt very strongly that we needed both the arts and the sciences in order to inform us about the whole picture of knowledge.

FLATOW: Let's talk about this piece of music that I just played. And maybe you can tell us what we're listening to, because I'm going re-rack it, as they say in the business, and play the music clip again. And…

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: What is that going on? Who was playing that?

Dr. GRAY: Okay. I'm starting. I'm on a synthesizer and Panbanisha, who is a bonobo, she has her own synthesizer. And she has been listening to me and I've been saying, let's play a grooming song. And then she joins in and she starts to play her synthesizer with mine. And she gets excited, as you can hear, and every now and then kind of sings along. But what you're hearing is two individuals at their own synthesizer basically jamming together.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: The bonobo's jamming with you.

Dr. GRAY: That's right.

FLATOW: And she's keeping pace.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GRAY: Well, yes. That's a very interesting part of all of this. We have been working with Panbanisha and Kanzi. These are…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. GRAY: …two of the adult bonobos that are now in residence at the Great Ape Trust for about seven years. I've - I started working with Kanzi and Panbanisha when they were still at Georgia State University at the Language Research Center there. And they grew up in a very enriched environment, where basically the researchers wanted to see just how far the bonobo brain could go if they had all of the advantages of human children.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. GRAY: And so, these particular bonobos, Kanzi and Panbanisha - and now, Panbanisha's offspring, Nyota and Nathan, have been raised in a musical environment. So they are used to having radios play around them. They had people who would play music for them to go to sleep at night.

FLATOW: So they're really just surrounded by music all the time. Does it…

Dr. GRAY: That's right.

FLATOW: Does it matter when you play with them that they hit the right notes? Is that what you're looking for? What are you looking for…

Dr. GRAY: No.

FLATOW: …when they jam with you?

Dr. GRAY: The whole concept of what the right notes are is a cultural decision, isn't it?

FLATOW: Oh, yes.

Dr. GRAY: I mean, we get to be arbiters is based on our own cultural experience of what sounds good. So, at this juncture, what we are trying to do is measure and research what we might consider some very, very basic elements, the building blocks, so to speak, of music-making. And so, you'll hear me actually kind of segue from using the word music to using the word music-making or to use a term that Christopher Smallwood coined a few years back, musicing(ph).

The emphasis here being that instead of being a product called music, we're really focused on the process. And if we look at what are the elements of the process of doing something musical with each other, regardless of our musical background or our musical culture, there are certain things that are rather ubiquitous throughout our species. And some of those things have to do with -we can feel a beat and we can move in time to that beat. So that makes it possible for us to say things together, to cheerlead, to do the wave…

FLATOW: And…

Dr. GRAY: …to actually have a conversation.

FLATOW: And you can trace it all the way back to the Bonobos.

Dr. GRAY: Well…

FLATOW: That's early.

Dr. GRAY: This rhythmic sense…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. GRAY: …that we have built into our brains is a biological gift. And so, there are some opportunities now with these particular Bonobos to see whether it's uniquely human. And I think that a lot of people have gotten excited, recently, because there are indications that there's - that some of these basic rhythmic abilities - these capabilities that we're born with - may be translated into other species. Such as - some people maybe aware of a cockatoo by name of Snowball.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. GRAY: He's been all over the…

FLATOW: Right. Yeah.

Dr. GRAY: In fact, he's on your Web site.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. GRAY: But also, we have been working with this particular group of Bonobos to try to get a sense of this rhythmic sense. Do they have it? Is there synchrony? Can they actually feel a beat and engage with that beat in what we might call a multimodal way? I mean, can you clap to it? Can you move a key up and down to it? Can you play a drum to an existing external beat? That's a synchrony.

Now, here's where it gets even more exciting for us, because humans cannot only entrain to a beat but we can subdivide this beat into parts. So we can go, (makes noise) or into threes, (makes noise), so on. That's called beat entrainment. And we think that we are looking at some preliminary evidence that not only do these Bonobos have the ability to entrain that big beat, but they have the ability to subdivide that beat. And that's really what you're listening to when, you know, listening to Pandonesia and I improvise together.

FLATOW: That's right. We've run out time. I want to thank you very much for taking time to do this and sharing your music with us.

Dr. GRAY: Well, it's been a pleasure.

FLATOW: Patricia Gray is clinical professor and senior research scientist of biomusic at the Music Research Institute at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro.

Next, we're heading not to funky town. We're going to be heading to monkey town. And we're going to about a study published in Biology Letters showing that cottontail tamarin monkeys - still in our music theme here with primates -they respond emotionally to music so long as it's specific - special species-specific songs.

Musician David Teie composed monkey music using elements of monkey calls. The tamarins who never showed any response to human voice were actually excited by the aggressive music and calmed by affectionate music. Sort of like, I guess, the way we are.

And here to talk about it is David Teie. He's a lecturer in the School of Music at the University of Maryland and is cellist to the National Symphony Orchestra.

Welcome, David.

Mr. TEIE: Hello. Thank you, Ira. It's great to be here.

FLATOW: Well, I'm going to play because we are running out of time. I'm going to play our first little bit of music that we have. And let's see - let's listen to that.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: Tell us what we're listening to.

Mr. TEIE: Neal, the real time version of some of my music that was the aggressive, the threat based music for the tamarins.

FLATOW: So, you played threat based music for them. And did they react?

Mr. TEIE: Well, what you're actually listening to, they did not react to.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TEIE: But this is the example of - this is how it sounded as I recorded it on the cello.

FLATOW: Okay. So you…

Mr. TEIE: And…

FLATOW: You recorded on the cello and you had to speed it up or you, know, modified it for them?

Mr. TEIE: That's right. Then, I had - I speeded it up eight times. I took it three octaves higher. And then, after a couple of seconds break, you'll hear the version that they heard.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: Oh, there it is. Wow, and this drove them nutty.

Mr. TEIE: They were bouncing off the walls.

FLATOW: It would drive me nutty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TEIE: No. Yeah, it's not - well, you know, we received some criticisms. They said, well, you really can't call that music because before that they had heard the, you know, the monkey version, and to us that does sound just like a bunch of scrapes. But it is in their perceptual range. That's where they communicate and where they - how they listen.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TEIE: But - you know, it's an A minor. I used counterpoint…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. TEIE: …standard notation.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's play the other bit that you played for them.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: And this was - how did the monkeys react to this?

Mr. TEIE: This calmed them down. This was the - this was basically a tamarin ballad. And that something you hear is the pace of a resting heart rate of an adult tamarin. And…

FLATOW: And you put that heart rate in because…

Mr. TEIE: It's a good story. But it's interesting how Pat Gray - by the way, we played together here for years, National Musical Arts ensemble. It was great to hear your voice again. But the - according to my hypothesis, the reason we have rhythm and the sense of - and the foundations of all music are of the womb sounds that we have heard, that the fetus can hear for five months and the sounds of the heartbeat, the female voice of the - the voice of the mother and the respiration, they account for all of the universal traits music found in all cultures.

And it's - because the limbic structures, the emotional sensors are almost completely formed at birth in the human brain.

FLATOW: I get it. Let me just interrupt rudely and say that I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Sorry, go ahead again.

Mr. TEIE: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TEIE: This - so, basically, our rhythm - were kind of calibrated with that heartbeat…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. TEIE: …for those five months. And so, we - the way I like to think of it is that the sounds of your mother's heartbeat breathing and voice were permanently etched into the emotional sensors of your brain. And they are the foundation of all…

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. TEIE: ...human music.

FLATOW: Is there any human music that you - they might like?

Mr. TEIE: It's possible - as it happens, they have - there is a kind of anomaly, that when we played the music of Tool, the aggressive flash metal of heavy metal of Tool and Metallica, it calmed them down.

And basically, Chuck, who has worked - the lead author on this study was great to work with and is a brilliant scientist. And he chalked it up to musical taste. And I actually - I love the idea that other species also have a varied musical tastes.

FLATOW: So, they're not into Mozart.

Mr. TEIE: That's right. Well, there is a kind of - basically, that accident - I think there's a reason for it, too. The diatonic measure of Mozart's music would be something of a universal appreciation. And in fact, the calming music that are for the tamarins and their calming vocalizations are very diatonic. They're like major scales.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. TEIE: And the threats are dissonant. They're full of dissonant intervals, and so was my threat based music.

FLATOW: So, how do these add to the study of the evolution of music, what you've learned here?

Mr. TEIE: Well, I think what it points to is that they have - there are common roots to music. When I heard one of these calls, and I slowed them down, it was called "SL Trill," and it was an E flat major scale. I had the thought - and we think we invented music, but the foundations of it are natural in the natural world. But also, the evolution of music, as we understand it, if we can consider music to be an entirely human construct, everything about music was built by humans for humans.

It's, you know, we, the musicians over the centuries, have made this thing. And when you look at it from that perspective and peel back the layers over time, of which elements were added as music was developed, you're allowed to see - the emotional triggers of each of those elements were that caused emotional responses.

FLATOW: Now, do you think that they're making this music in the wild themselves or something like it?

Mr. TEIE: Well, you know, I would say something like it. I - in a sense, I would say, especially this - the cotton topped tamarin, the whole semantics of whether it's music or not, not so much interests me, but I can say that the elements of music are the basic elements of their communication.

And when we listen to them in musical terms, we can understand them. In a sense, when Chuck decided to do this study with me, I think that one of the convincing reasons - because I have absolutely no scientific credentials - but he was willing to work on the study on the basis of the strength of the ideas themselves. And he sent me two new calls. And I was a little uncomfortable, but I just wrote back to him and I said, I don't think these should be categorized as the same type of call.

One is - sounds to me like a threat. One sounds like a normal communication between two of the same group. And he was - he liked the idea that I was able to tell - and I was right about it, as it happens - was able to tell, just by the kind of musical analysis, what the mood of the animals who were calling was.

So, I think the - ultimately, the real story of this study was that we have an understanding now and we have something in common with them in musical terms. We can actually literally understand them better.

FLATOW: Right. Right.

Mr. TEIE: And we have a genuine contact and communication and connection with these species that we just didn't have before

FLATOW: All right, David. I've ran out of time. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Mr. TEIE: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: David Teie, cellist with the National Symphony Orchestra and lecturer at the School of Music in University of Maryland.

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