Tuesday, March 24, 2009

why do birds sing?

Is Oliver Sacks right? Is grooving to the beat a uniquely human behavior, one that no other animal approximates? When he said that I did wonder why the animals that didn’t pass the test were elephants and horses and dogs – none of them known for their native musics – when there are animals that sing. Birds, mostly. But whales, too, are known for their deep immersion in a sound world and some (humpbacks, famously) are known to sing. Yet neither birds nor whales are mentioned in Musicophilia.

Wait. Birds aren’t even mentioned in a book on music? In a book on the biological/neurological origins of music? Not even an aside?

So I’m reading Irene Pepperberg’s memoir of her life with Alex the parrot, with whom she worked during her studies of parrot language acquisition (or communicative behaviors), and I come across this casual mention of Alex’s reaction to music:

They are traveling cross country in a car. “We had left behind the endless miles of cornfields and succession of summer tornadoes … Alex had been terrified by the tornadoes. He could sense the change in air pressure long before we [humans] were aware of anything: the only thing that soothed him as the storms raged was Haydn’s cello concerto, which sometimes swept him into a trancelike state, his body moving gently, eyes squinting almost shut.”

Does this behavior fit the definition of moving to music, of synching one’s behaviors to a tune or a beat? Who knows? But I suppose it’s possible to find out. If you care. If it matters.

under discussion: Alex and Me: how a scientist and a parrot discovered a hidden world of animal intelligence – and formed a deep bond in the process by Irene M. Pepperberg

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