A Pachyderm's Ditty Prompts An Elephantine Debate An elephant at the National Zoo has a particular fondness for playing the harmonica. But that raises some questions: From an evolutionary perspective, what is music and why do we have it?
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A Pachyderm's Ditty Prompts An Elephantine Debate

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A Pachyderm's Ditty Prompts An Elephantine Debate

A Pachyderm's Ditty Prompts An Elephantine Debate

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At the National Zoo here in Washington, D.C., an Asian elephant recently revealed her love of music to zookeepers - at least, it sounded that way. And that got reporter Sabri Ben-Achour wondering: Where did music come from, anyway?

SABRI BEN-ACHOUR, BYLINE: So here's some music.


BEN-ACHOUR: And this is also music. It's from a Pygmy celebration in Eastern Congo.


BEN-ACHOUR: But what about this?


BEN-ACHOUR: That last ditty is by Shanthi. She's kind of new. You might not have heard of her because...

DEBBIE FLINKMAN: Shanti is our 36-year-old Asian elephant.

BEN-ACHOUR: That's National Zoo elephant keeper Debbie Flinkman. Shanti plays-slash-plays with the harmonica.

FLINKMAN: She's just so interested in finding ways to make interesting noises. If a lock makes noise, she'll flip the lock repetitively. She will blow across the top of toys that we have drilled holes in.


BEN-ACHOUR: Flinkman ended up tying a harmonica to a wall in Shanthi's enclosure, and Shanthi would play it.

FLINKMAN: It's not usually a long ditty, but it always ends in this really big - sort of fanfare at the end, this big blowout.


BEN-ACHOUR: But is that music? And actually, what is music? Like, why do we have it?

DAN LEVITIN: It was an evolutionary accident.

BEN-ACHOUR: That is Dan Levitin. He's a professor of psychology and neuroscience at McGill University. He's written a couple books - and tons of papers - on why we have music, and why we like it. He says the accident idea is a big one. It went public back in 1997, when Harvard professor Steven Pinker - he's a world-renowned author and experimental psychologist - got up in front of a group of musicologists and cognitive scientists at their big meeting and was like, you're all wasting your time because music is...

LEVITIN: Cheesecake.

BEN-ACHOUR: Auditory cheesecake.

LEVITIN: Cheesecake is interesting. We have this great fondness for it, but we didn't evolve a taste for cheesecake. In our hunter-gatherer days, it was an adaptive strategy to load up on fats and sweets because they were very hard to find. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: Levitin explains the "cheesecake" theory, but he does not espouse the theory himself. He believes there is compelling evidence that music is a product of evolution.]

BEN-ACHOUR: So because we, for other reasons, like fats and sweets - we like cheesecake, too - it doesn't mean that cheesecake serves an evolutionary purpose, goes the argument.

LEVITIN: And he said the same thing applies to music; that our brains evolved language, and music just hopped along for the evolutionary ride.

BEN-ACHOUR: So let's take the idea of the beat, the beat, the beat, the beat, the beat. (VOICE MANIPULATION)

We need the beat for music, but is it an accident, too? Well, a lot of animals are really bad at it. So, for example, macaques - these are monkeys; they share a lot with us.


BEN-ACHOUR: Researchers tried to train these guys to just tap their fingers in time to a metronome.


BEN-ACHOUR: Four hours a day, they practiced; six days a week - for a year. The monkeys could not do it. No beat. No music. And then there's this guy.



BEN-ACHOUR: That's the cockatoo named Snowball. And he's dancing - like, straight up-dancing; keeping time, bobbing his head, kicking his feet; no problem keeping a beat. Now, cockatoos don't dance in the wild - as far as we know - so Snowball probably didn't evolve to dance to the Backstreet Boys. But he definitely can.

GREG BRYANT: Species that do this, seem to be species that do vocal mimicry.

BEN-ACHOUR: That's Greg Bryant. He's an assistant professor at UCLA's Department of Communication Studies. He says cockatoos got their beat ability by accident. It's helps them mimic - like, learn sounds and vocal phrases from their parents that they'll need to know; to later get a mate, or to shoo something out of their territory.

BRYANT: And so that might be the evolutionary origins of our ability, too, since we also can do vocal mimicry.

BEN-ACHOUR: But just because it's an evolutionary accident in animals, does that mean our music - human music - is an accident, too? Really?


Ellen Dissanayake is author of "Art and Intimacy." She's written a lot about the evolution and purpose of art and she says no, we totally have music for a reason. And she explains it, she's watching a video of a mother and her baby.

ELLEN DISSANAYAKE: All over the world, adults behave with their babies in ways they don't with each other. They make funny facial expressions; they move their heads and bodies in different sorts of ways; and they talk in a higher-pitched tone, with a lot of repetition, a lot of vocal contours. So that is, I think, very musical.

BEN-ACHOUR: That universally sing-songy kind of duet between mothers and babies, she says, could have been the kernel, a million years ago, of what we now know as music. She says it could have started as an emotional bonding system. And it worked not just for mom and baby but mom and neighbor, and then neighbor and everyone around the campfire. That may be how we went from baby talk...


BEN-ACHOUR: ...to Beethoven.


BEN-ACHOUR: And a lot of theorists actually believe music served this purpose of - well, just getting along in groups.


BEN-ACHOUR: Here's Dan Levitin, from McGill University...

LEVITIN: We now know that when people play music together, oxytocin is released. This is the bonding hormone that's released when people have an orgasm together. And then, so you have to ask yourself - well, that can't be a coincidence. There had to be some evolutionary pressure there. Language doesn't produce it; music does. So the idea is that there's no primate society that I know of, that has more than 18 males in the living group because the rivalries cause the groups to break apart; and there's too much fighting. But human societies of thousands of members have existed for thousands of years. And the argument is that music, among other things, helped to defuse interpersonal tensions and to smooth over rivalries.

BEN-ACHOUR: So maybe music really did tame the savage beast. Maybe it tamed us. For NPR News, I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.


WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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