Saturday, February 28, 2009

elephants don’t play well together?

In his book on music and the brain Oliver Sacks quotes Aniruddh Patel: “’[T]here is not a single report of an animal being trained to tap, peck, or move in synchrony with an auditory beat.’” As prophylactic against protests – how can he make such a categorical statement! – Patel says he visited an elephant orchestra in Thailand. “[E]lephants have been trained to strike percussion instruments and play on their own. … Patel [and a collegue] made careful measurements and video recordings of the elephants’ performances. They found, as they reported in a 2006 paper, that an elephant could ‘play a percussion instrument [a large drum] with a highly stable tempo’ – indeed a tempo more stable than most humans could achieve. But the other elephants in the ‘orchestra’ struck their instruments [cymbals, gongs, etc.] in seeming disregard of each other, without any hint of synchronization to the auditory beat of the drum elephant.’”

Oliver Sacks pulls back from primates to our own order: “’[R]hythm’ – in this special sense of combining movement and sound – appears spontaneously in human children, but not in any other primate.”

I’m not interested in arguing about whether there is a nonhuman animal what’s got riddim. What annoys me is this notion that writers have to ta-da – look folks, here’s something that only humans can do. That must be the thing that distinguishes us from all other life forms – after all, it’s not toolmaking, it’s not an opposable thumb, it’s not love, it’s not even laughter. It must be, uh, “being [able to be] trained to … move in synchrony with an auditory beat,” whatever that means exactly.

Is it so hard to hold back the definitive statement? Insert a “so far as we know” or “there was no example that we were able to find” or somesuch? Is a sentence like, “We were unable to find a single report of an animal being trained to tap, peck or move in synchrony blah blah blah”, so unwieldy? I mean, all it takes is one “single report” and you got egg on your face.

source: Musicophilia: tales of music and the brain, by Oliver Sacks

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