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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And we have more animal news in our next story. It's about a composer who sought to figure out how and why music has such a hold on our emotions. He said he gained an insight by writing music, not for humans, but for monkeys.

NPR's Richard Harris has the story.

RICHARD HARRIS: David Teie is a cellist who plays with the National Symphony Orchestra and even on occasion with the heavy metal band Metallica. And he's a composer.

He's also been developing a theory to explain why music plays on human emotions. His theory is that music relates to the most primitive sounds we make and respond to, like laughter, heartbeats, or a mother's cooing.

Mr. DAVID TEIE (Cellist, National Symphony Orchestra): When I thought I had all the pieces put into place, I figured any good theory is testable. So, one of the ways to test it would be to see if I could write music that would be affective for a species other than human.

HARRIS: He wrote to Chuck Snowdon, a psychology professor who managed a colony of monkeys called cottontop tamarins at the University of Wisconsin. Snowdon says he was happy to cooperate and sent Teie recordings he'd made in the lab.

(Soundbite of monkeys)

Professor CHUCK SNOWDON (University of Wisconsin): That's an animal that's being threatened by a veterinarian. So, he's very upset. He's coming out to the front of the cage as though to attack or to show aggressiveness.

HARRIS: Snowdon also sent a sound that, believe it or not, monkeys make when they're feeling mellow.

(Soundbite of monkey)

HARRIS: That's a quick one. Again:

(Soundbite of monkey)

HARRIS: With those samples and a few others as a starting point, David Teie composed music for monkeys.

Mr. TEIE: Basically, I took those elements and patterned them the way we do normally with music. You repeat them and take them up a third or, you know. It was using the same kind of compositional techniques that are often used in human music.

HARRIS: He played the compositions on his cello and then electronically boosted them up three octaves, to a pitch that matched the monkeys' voices. Monkeys don't respond at all to music written for humans, but they did respond when they heard this composition, written specifically for them.

(Soundbite of music)

HARRIS: Chuck Snowdon says people may not be calmed by this relatively fast tempo pieces, but the monkeys in his lab certainly were.

Prof. SNOWDON: This is a rhythm that approaches the resting heart rate of a tamarin and had this calming effect on them, even though the pum-pum-pum-pum in the background was maybe a bit faster than we would expect as humans for this music.

HARRIS: Compare that with the music that Teie wrote to see if he could agitate the monkeys, a la Metallica.

(Soundbite of music)

Prof. SNOWDON: Monkeys reacted to this by increasing their movement. They moved faster through their environment. And also showed an increase in a whole variety of behaviors that we have associated with anxiety.

HARRIS: Snowdon and Teie report these findings in the journal Biology Letters. And they argue they aren't simply sounds that imitate monkey voices, they are actually music. Teie says they are written on a staff, played on a musical instrument, and they have rhythm and tonal structure. But is it really music?

Mr. JOSH MCDERMOTT (New York University): I wouldn't say so, to be honest.

HARRIS: Josh McDermott studies music and the brain at New York University.

Mr. MCDERMOTT: There's always this sort of issue of how you ought to define music.

HARRIS: And in this case, McDermott says it's impossible to say whether the monkeys are reacting to the musical elements that Teie has added to the recordings or simply to the sounds that mimic monkey voices.

And that's the nub of the issue. Teie is, after all, trying to understand the nature of music — what makes it tug at his heartstrings. It's a question so powerful, at first he was afraid to even ask it.

Mr. TEIE: The paradox is that I remember - I distinctly remember, thinking once that when they figure out why Puccini makes me cry, I hope I die the day before the news gets out. But the great news about this exploration into music is that it's actually more magical and wonderful once you realize how it works.

HARRIS: In fact, Teie is now hoping to use his insights to compose music that will appeal to other species — and to trigger even deeper emotional reactions in us.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You can hear more monkey calls and the songs they inspired at the new NPR.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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