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Taking a close look at musical evolution in humans and animals

AMSTERDAM, Feb 23 — More than a cultural phenomenon, music is present in all human cultures, meaning that it’s part of our biological makeup, yet we’re not the only musical species that inhabits the earth.

Parrots and songbirds share in this biology, too, says an international research team from the University of Vienna who observed these birds to find out more about the many, unique human musical systems.

While different cultures have established their own musical styles across time, many aspects of human music — down to the type of intervals between notes — seem to appeal the world over.

Similarly to these cross-cultural parallels, say the researchers, there are cross-species parallels of song production and perception.

Songbirds, for example, are characterised for their musical vocalisations, which come to them through learning, just as they do in parrots, which have the added capacity to recognise a beat and move to it.

Interest is growing in building on studies suggesting some animals can recognise musical genres like humans do, leading the question as to whether all species have the potential to be musical.

In 2012, researchers at the University of Amsterdam concluded that the seemingly trivial musical skills of relative pitch and beat induction are fundamental components of human musicality.

Relative pitch is the ability to recognise a melody independent of its pitch and beat induction is that of detecting a regular beat from a rhythm that varies.

These are two skills that most everyone possesses to some degree — if not they can be learned — and the study suggests they are conditional to the origin of music.

Yet for humans and animals and with the exception of birds, music has no biological function, for it does not quench thirst nor quell our hunger.

According to the Austrian research team, upcoming studies on the backbone mechanisms of musicality are expected to uncover clues about how and why the very condition of musicality evolved in humans, animals and birds.

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