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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.

By Anne Midgette  |  September 3, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
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Don't tritones sound bad to humans? I have been wondering how much of dissonance is learned and how much is biological. Maybe this is a clue of some sort.

Posted by: markfromark | September 3, 2009 4:58 PM | Report abuse

Similar to "I have been wondering how much of dissonance is learned and how much is biological." I always wonder how musical talent fits into human evolution.
What evolutionary advantage did musical talent provide? Someone must have done a study on this.

Posted by: kashe | September 3, 2009 10:42 PM | Report abuse

These are such fascinating questions. One could conceivably begin one’s explorations by reading such fairly short and provocative works as John Blacking’s “How Musical Is Man?” (for an evolutionary and ethnomusicological perspective), although there are numerous other comparably intriguing investigations, some of whose authors spoke last season at the Library of Congress as part of its still ongoing “Music and the Brain” lecture series.

Gottfried Schlaug, from the Harvard Medical School and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s “Music and Neuroimaging Lab,” will be speaking at the Library of Congress this coming December 4, probably at about 6 PM, in a lecture entitled "Making Music Changes Brains." Also see:

Posted by: snaketime1 | September 4, 2009 10:08 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for your interest in this story, Anne. It is always enjoyable to talk with you - I love strong opinions from a quick mind...
Dissonance induces a fear response from the amygdala, our brain's "fear central". The question that intrigued me was "Why should the amygdala care about dissonance?" I believe it is one of the components of the chaos/order dichotomy in primate communication. Under the chaos-fear-threat heading are: harsh tone qualities (complex waveform), dissonance, and irregular syllabic rhythms. Under the order-comfort-affection heading are: pure tone qualities (simple waveforms), consonance, and regular rhythms.

Posted by: dteie | September 5, 2009 6:21 AM | Report abuse


"Under the chaos-fear-threat heading are: harsh tone qualities (complex waveform), dissonance, and irregular syllabic rhythms."

explain the aversion to twelve-tone, serial music?

Posted by: kashe | September 5, 2009 11:48 AM | Report abuse

At the risk of alienating an entire category of composers - some of whom are still alive - an aversion to serial music is as natural as the perfect octave.

Posted by: dteie | September 6, 2009 5:30 PM | Report abuse

The real question that needs to be answered (and may be unanswerable) is whether the monkeys experience the music as a narrative experience such as humans do in percieving musical movement, or whether they merely exprerience the sounds and their similarities to the sounds they are familiar with or are feireign to them. If the latter is true, then, what does that say about the concept of music as uniquely human?

Posted by: whiterhino | September 7, 2009 10:39 PM | Report abuse

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