Monkeys Like Happy Monkey Music (and Metallica)

By Allison Bond | September 2, 2009 5:47 pm

Tamarin monkeyAs anyone who has a favorite (and least-favorite) musical artist knows, music can affect our moods. Now it seems it can do the same for cotton-top tamarin monkeys, but only when the music is composed specifically for them, according to a study published in the journal Biology Letters.

Except for one anomaly (they liked Metallica), the monkeys didn’t respond to samples of human music–but the tamarins did respond to cello music that was reminiscent of their natural calls. Cellist and composer David Teie studied recordings of both happy and upset tamarins, and used them as the bases for two different kinds of monkey music. “Basically I took those elements and patterned them the way we do normally with music,” he says. “You repeat them, take them up a [musical] third — you know, using the same kind of compositional techniques we use in human music.”  He played the compositions on his cello and then electronically boosted them up three octaves, to a pitch that matched the monkeys’ voices [NPR].

The song snippet based on happy monkey noises made the tamarin test subjects calmer, more relaxed, and more social. When the researchers played monkey music that sounded threatening, however, the animals became agitated, urinating and moving between perches more often. So what constitutes “good” monkey music? Even though it sounds different, the music tamarins and people find relaxing or stressful shares some common core elements. Long legato notes and certain jumps in pitch, such as the jump from do to mi in the do-re-mi of Western music, are calming sounds for both the monkeys and people. Clashing chords and short staccato bursts seem to have menacing associations [Science News]. Still, the music that the monkeys enjoyed is not pleasant to the human ear, because tamarin calls are faster and higher-pitched than human voices and speech.

The study seems to suggest that humanity’s appreciation for music may have evolved from primate responses, but further research is necessary to evaluate this possibility. Comments neuroscientist Joshua McDermott: “Although I don’t see that these initial results tell us a whole lot about the origins of human music, I think there are extensions of [the study] that could.” … He also says he would like to see the researchers use a more objective measure of the monkeys’ stress—for example, levels of the hormone cortisol [Science News]. But the study’s findings could be used in other ways, such as helping caregivers provide tamarind monkeys with a more pleasant environment in captive settings.

Teie’s Happy Monkey Music

Teie’s Threatening Monkey Music

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Image: flickr / Duloup

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain
  • Cory

    I kinda dig the happy music. The “threatening” music just sounds like scat jazz imo.

  • Jumblepudding

    To be fair, they should play other thrash metal bands to see which one is best liked by tamarins. Metallica is just the tip of the iceberg.

  • YouRang

    I remember the time we heard a lone howler monkey making his sounds, and I had thought “I bet I could make that sound”. So I did and the howler sat straight up turned around and looked straight at me and started howling more. I matched for a little bit, and he increased his howling. I eventually quit since I felt kind of bad since I didn’t know what I had been saying. (To be honest, I kind of thought he/she might be the only one in the zoo (and hence lonely) so it might be a poster child for those opposed to zoos in general.)

  • Brian

    Metallica Makes Mad Monkey Music!

  • Justin

    reminds me of the Metalocalypse episode where Dethklok was playing to fish :)
    and i did see where they also played them Nine Inch Nails

  • Dov Henis

    Music Is An Inherited Plus Paloved Trait

    A. “Play that monkey music”
    Man-made music inspired by tamarin calls seems to alter the primates’ emotions, a new study suggests.

    B. Music is both an inherited plus a Pavloved trait, characteristic

    Hearing plus memory are evolutionarily culturally selected for survival. Their combinations are both consequences of remembered emotions and – via a natural Pavlovian process – also inspirators of emotions.

    C. Also “Why Music Touches Us”, Nov 2005

    My conjecture about music ‘touching-moving’ us:

    Music is a human cultural-artifactual elaboration of creatures’ vocal communication which is an extension-elaboration of >24 wks-old in-womb fetus’ and of newborns’ intimate safe-coddle-sooth experiences. Both ‘touch’ and ‘hear’ senses are founded on mechanical sensing processes involving in-cell ions leakage forming electrical action potentials interpreted neurologically.

    I suggest-conjecture that the same neurological constellation may be handling both ‘touch’ and ‘hear’ senses, being of commom mechanisms and differing essentially only in switch-on modes, and that this evolves in all vocal creatures in conjunction with in-womb safe-feeling, and later with baby codling-handling and vocal soothing-communicating, and later also with intimate emotional implications. Hence music has ‘engulfing-touching-emotional’ connotation and personal music orientation has childhood-ethnic rootings.

    D. IMO a proper elucidation of music-memory-emotion complex in unavoidably long,

    since it should extend from fetal through adolescennt phases.

    Dov Henis
    (Comments From The 22nd Century)
    Updated Life’s Manifest May 2009
    EVOLUTION Beyond Darwin 200

  • Larsson Stig

    Metallica rules!

  • ian

    I don’t see how any of this is relevant. Not only from hearing the compositions but just reading this article left me feeling disturbed. I can’t help envisioning these monkeys getting agitated by this noise that sounds like it would arouse something out of any cat, gerbil, or goldfish. And then what else what the monkey’s, or anything else, do when that psychedelic craziness is turned off?

    They made a study out of this. To make any substantial conclusions they must have subjected them to this on and over. Dare I say it? Yes!

    Please, leave the Cotton-Top’s alone. Play nice with the monkeys.

    I wonder what cats like? Go get a cellist and find out? No.


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