Can birds keep a beat?

04 July 2017

Interview with

Christina Zdenek, University of Queensland, Elizabeth Tolbert, Johns Hopkins University

Birdsong may sound beautiful, but can they keep a beat? Georgia Mills has been sounding them out... 

Georgia - Some kind of music exists in every culture in the world, but does it stop with humans or do our friends in the animal kingdom enjoy a beat or two? Elizabeth Tolbert is a Professor of Ethnomusicology at Johns Hopkins University and is interested in this very question. I caught up with her to find out if we knew when music first began in our own species.

Elizabeth - If we are talking about music as we understand it today, it’s a human cultural form. So, basically, the question would then be when did human culture begin? And that’s a thorny question, but if you look at the archaeological evidence we don’t really see much manifestation of symbolic thought until after the evolution of anatomically modern homosapiens. So there may have been a lot of precursors to music-like behaviours, but actual music in terms of being a cultural form came with anatomically modern humans.

Georgia - Do we know why music started, why it’s this important thing to us?

Elizabeth - That’s also a hotly contested topic. My particular take on it is that music is part of the broader spectrum of human symbolic communication and that it’s kind of on one end of a continuum. It’s on the end of the continuum that’s about sociality and relationality. The other end might be language which is about referring to specific objects in the environment. But both of them have to do with the imaginary worlds that humans create to interact with one another. So I would say that whatever drove us to have a certain kind of sociality, the off-shoot of that was that we were able to create these imagined worlds and we need both the glue to keep us together so that we believe in these imagined worlds and we need more specific things that point us to actual events and things - language, music.

Georgia - Are humans alone in this ability to make music? Because when I think of music, I also think of things like birdsong I suppose, so is it just humans who can do this?

Elizabeth - Again, a hotly debated topic! From my perspective, music is a human activity. Because it’s part of culture and I also consider culture to be a human activity. There are a lot of sounds that animals make that sound like music to us. Included in this are things like - well birdsong is the obvious one, but whalesong - absolutely beautiful… But we are the ones that are making them musical - not the animals. A composer might sample some bird sounds and put them in a composition it’s framed as though some kind of musical being is uttering that. That’s what we attribute it to, and I think the way we attribute subjectivity and intention to sounds is what makes it music, not the sounds themselves.

Georgia - We could argue then that it’s our specific human interpretation of something which makes it musical. Birdsong might sound lovely to us, but we have no evidence to suggest birds even hear it in the same way we do. And even something relatively simple like tapping a beat, most animals seem to struggle with - with one notable exception…

Christina - I’m Christina Zdenek and I’m currently a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland.

Picture a quiet, remote area to the far north Queensland of Australia.

Georgia - This is the home of the Palm Cockatoo. Christina’s been tracking them over 7 years to document an extremely rare behaviour, all the while living in some very luxury conditions.

Christina - For a couple of years it was a shelter shed with only two walls and the ceiling and the floor, so butterflies and bats fly through the place, and snakes slither through the rafters, and you only have a third of the place that stays out of the rain.

Georgia - So what was this behaviour that was worth spending months on end living in a glorified shack?

Christina - I was after drumming behaviour.

Georgia - Can you hear it? (tap, tap, tap) That tapping is made by a cockatoo. It’s rapping a drum stick that it’s made from a twig onto a tree trunk. This is the only known example of an animal actually making a tool to make sound. And they’re pretty good at it!

Christina - It was one bird in particular. He had a bit of a ring on his bill and that was really distinctive. Because he had the ring and because he was drumming a lot I called him Ringo. He would drum for ages compared to other birds. One of his sequences that went for over 14 minutes and it was consistent. He kept a rhythm and it was the same rhythm throughout.

Georgia - Move over Ringo! But why are these birds drumming in the first place?

Christina - Leading up to breeding is when these birds are drumming. The majority of the context in which I recorded them drumming is where the male is doing it with an audience of one, and that audience would be a female and that was his mate. We don’t think that it’s to attract a mate but more so for pair bonding, and this could be really important for them in their gearing up for breeding.

Georgia - All this effort just to impress their mates! And this does give us an insight our own species. Perhaps early humans started drumming in the first place for the very same reason.

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