Music for Monkeys
David Teie, a cellist with the National Symphony Orchestra who also composes, is getting widespread attention this week for his what may be, to date, his greatest hit.
It was a piece of music written for a tamarin monkey.
In an article published in the journal Biology Letters this week, Teie and Charles Snowdon, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, reveal the results of a research project in which they demonstrated that monkeys, who are equivocal about music written for people, had decided reactions to music that was written specifically for them.
Teie wrote a total of four pieces informed by the calls of the monkey colony, two based on affiliative calls – that is, happy ones – and two based on fear calls (you can hear them on the NPR website). While he incorporated characteristics of the monkeys’ calls in his music, he was not trying to imitate them, nor simply to create sound effects. The “fear” piece, written deliberately to agitate the monkeys (a kind of tamarin Metallica), is “in f minor,” he said, speaking by phone yesterday from Prague, where he is visiting family, “with a tritone leap in the bass.”
(read more after the jump)
The piece was then boosted three octaves, electronically, to bring it into the normal range of a tamarin. When they heard it, the monkeys exhibited marked signs of anxiety. They reacted to the "happy" music with equally definite, but happier behavior. When exposed to human music, by contrast, they had no reaction at all.
To enhance the scientific standing of the project, the experiment was run twice; Teie wrote two different "fear" pieces and two different "happy" ones. The results were the same.
Teie was the instigator of the project, which grew out of his investigations into how music affects human emotions (which he hopes to present in a book-in-progress called Human Music). His idea is that music written for humans is developed out of sounds that were programmed into our brains as they were forming -- sounds heard in the womb. If this was true, he reasoned, it made sense that other species wouldn't respond to human music, and if he could find their triggers, he might be able to write music that would affect them.
He had hoped to be able to test his conclusions through means such as FMRI technology (scanning the animals' brains) or other physiological tests, but Snowdon ruled those out as too invasive. Teie initially wasn't sure the behavioral tests would be conclusive. "If you look at an audience," he says, "can you tell who's enjoying the Mozart by looking at them? But luckily these little critters are extremely active and easy to read," and the scientists, of course, have rigorous standards for evaluating their behavior.
Teie has already been extrapolating his findings into music for other species. From his website, Music for Cats, you can download three songs written specifically for felines, although progress is slow. "It takes a surprisingly long time to produce and record and make up one of these songs," he says.
Teie does also write music for human beings. His flute concerto will have its world premiere from the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra this spring.
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