60-Second Science

Making Music for Monkey Minds

A study in the journal Biology Letters finds that music based on monkey's own calls has similar effects on them that human music has on us. Cynthia Graber reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

Music is known to make us happy, or calm, or sad. But do other animals respond to dulcet tones, as well? In studies, our primate cousins prefer silence to our music. But maybe we were playing the wrong tune.

Psychologist Charles Snowdon and musician David Teie teamed up to show that South American monkeys called cotton-top tamarins do respond to music: their own. The study was published in the journal Biology Letters.

With actual monkey calls in mind (MONKEY SOUNDS) Teie composed monkey music. (THREAT MUSIC) That tune was based on calls signifying anxiety. This one represents a happy, safe condition. (CALMING MUSIC) Snowdon played the compositions to tamarins. They became agitated hearing the threat song. And the more upbeat music put them in a mellow mood.

Much of what we communicate does depend on tone, not just words. This study suggests that what Snowdon calls the musical elements of speech has a deep evolutionary history. Just goes to show that music can “soothe a savage breast”—as long as it’s species appropriate.

—Cynthia Graber

For more monkey melodies musings, see Music to Monkeys' Ears? Try Metallica, or the Metro

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