Monkey music mixmasters

2 minute read

OK, maybe not mixmasters, exactly, but Mixing Memory does review this paper on marmoset reactions to human music by McDermott and Hauser, so I don't have to!

It's a good follow-up to my post from earlier this week, if you're interested in current research on the neuroscience and evolution of music abilities in humans.

Here's a quote from the conclusion of the paper to give an impression of why it is interesting.

However, despite the apparently aversive response monkeys have to many musical stimuli, we found for the first time evidence that they do have nontrivial preferences for some musical stimuli over others, and our results suggest that tempo is a critical variable.
Is the monkey response to tempo homologous to the human response to tempo? Further work is needed on this topic, but our results at least leave this possibility open. Humans obviously do not always prefer slow tempos to fast, but differences in temperament could cause tamarins and marmosets to find arousing stimuli aversive, whereas to humans they would merely be stimulating. Many stressful events in the natural environment, such as fights and storms, feature rapid sequences of acoustic events, and it is thus conceivable that animals have come to associate such stimuli with high levels of arousal. Future work using direct measures of arousal could provide further support for this hypothesis. It is also interesting to note that the alarm calls of tamarins and marmosets consist of short broadband bursts repeated at very high rates (Fig. 7 shows one such call from a tamarin). This acoustic structure is common to certain types of alarm calls in species ranging from monkeys and squirrels to birds (Marler, 1955), and could be related to the response nonhuman animals have to fast-tempo stimuli. Taken as a whole, however, the body of work on music perception in nonhuman primates suggests fundamental differences in the way they respond to musical stimuli compared to humans (McDermott and Hauser 2006:9-10).

That doesn't say too much about the necessary cognitive and perceptual processes that go into this kind of reaction -- whether aversive or not -- but it does suggest some relevant environmental noise analogues that might influence or constrain the reactions. One wonders whether playing their own chirps at a much higher tempo (part of the experiment) would be perceived in a threatening manner because of the combination of alienness and familiarity. Appropriate vocalizations themselves might change over time in natural groups, but they would in all cases be under selection to maintain appropriateness in constrast with their surroundings. So startlingly inappropriate vocalizations might be scary, even if their components were familiar -- sort of like seeing somebody on the street corner chanting gibberish.

So maybe studying these reactions in monkeys is question-begging. The real question is what about the human mind makes music compelling or attractive for people? We can say that whatever that is, these primates either don't have it or differ from humans sufficiently to make them not react the same way as humans to human music. But then, humans react quite differently to different brands of human music, in a way that is clearly culturally influenced if not completely culturally determined (and the balance between these alternatives is indeterminate).

Maybe it would be helpful to know if different populations of primates exhibit reactions that are comparably different to the differences in reactions to music among humans. We may not share the same affinities, but maybe we share similar dimensions of variability.


McDermott J, Hauser MD. 2006 Nonhuman primates prefer slow tempos but dislike music overall. Cognition (in press) Preprint