Thursday, January 21, 2010

Monkeys Love Metallica

A direct link to the above video is at

Photograph: Andy Fossum/Rex Features. As seen in The Guardian UK article referenced below.
Sometimes we talk about ideas that seem to contradict each other. In a number of entries, like Jumping Jesus, Evolution's Fast Lane, and The Stream, we've looked at mounting evidence that we're in a constantly accelerating meme-space, where ideas are connecting together more and more quickly, and the amount of information that each of us is asked to process on a daily basis is constantly increasing. In Placebos Becoming More Effective? we talked about an editorial the New York Times published earlier this month called "Old Fogies at 20". This article suggests that university age students are seeing a generation gap between them and their high-school aged siblings: particularly in the world of technology and the internet, trends and expectations are changing so quickly now!

It can be hard to perceive an acceleration when you're within a system where everything is accelerating, but we do catch glimpses. So on the one hand we talk about The Stream, The Singularity, Transhumanism, Artificial Intuition, Conscious Computers, and so on. On the other hand, we talk about time being an illusion and parts of each of us being connected to patterns that exist well outside of the limits of the "now" of our 4D spacetime. How do the two ideas fit together? First of all, let's look at some recent examples of these big picture patterns.

We've talked a few times about the deep underlying connections of sacred geometry and how the Golden Ratio has been considered a thing of beauty for thousands of years. Like fractals, shapes and patterns such as these occur naturally, and perhaps that's why we're so attracted to them, because they represent deeper connections to reality that are outside the limits of our observed spacetime. Here's a Science Daily article from earlier this month that extends this idea even further: it suggests that scientists have now discovered evidence of the Golden Ratio in the quantum world!

Music and sound also seem to connect us together in powerful ways that speak to a more timeless perspective. In The Big Bang and the Big O, I referred back to sections in my book where I discuss how certain sounds seem to reach us at a primal level: could the dreaded chalkboard squeal connect us to genetic memories of some ancient flying predator who swooped down from the sky making a similar sound? Here's a great TED Talks video featuring sound consultant Julian Treasure, it's called The Four Ways Sound Affects Us. It speaks very effectively to the idea that we are all connected together by the ways we react to sound. Watch this five minute video:

A direct link to the above

Julian is the chair of the Sound Agency, a firm that advises worldwide businesses -- offices, retailers, hotels -- on how to use sound and music more effectively. This leads us to the title of this entry, Monkeys Love Metallica. Okay, I admit it, "love" is overstating the case for dramatic effect but here's a link to a New York Times article my friend Pete Chema of Ten Feet Deep sent to me a couple of weeks ago, please check it out: "Music for Monkeys".

The Guardian UK also published a related article this past September that goes into more detail about this research, here's a link to that: Scientists create music that helps monkeys chill out. Both articles are linked to a study, published this past September in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, that (to quote from The Guardian article):
...will help psychologists understand the evolutionary roots of music and its effect on the brain, the authors said.

"The emotional components of music and animal calls might be very similar, and from an evolutionary perspective, we are finding that the note patterns, dissonance and timing are important for communicating affective states in both animals and people," said Chuck Snowdon, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Now, what Dr. Snowdon is talking about here seems to easily connect to ideas we've talked about in entries like The Geometry of Music and Disorders of the Mind: music, like the the other patterns we've just looked at, connects in ways that go beyond the limits of our 4D spacetime. But at first glance, the results of Dr. Snowdon's study seem to contradict the ideas he tells us he was exploring.

In the study, 14 cotton-top tamarins were played clips of music while the researchers noted any changes in behavior. Pieces included Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, a soft piano piece from The Fragile by Nine Inch Nails, Metallica's Of Wolf and Man and Tool's The Grudge.

According to the Guardian article, the monkeys didn't exhibit any clear response to these piece of music one way or another, except for the Metallica song,which had the unexpected effect of calming them down.

Interestingly, the New York Times article claims the scientists saw a similar soothing effect on the monkeys with the Tool song, but most of the other articles I found reporting on this study appear to only single out Metallica. Frankly, I have to suspect that most reporters covering this story grabbed on to the "Monkeys Like Metallica" angle because it makes for a more memorable story. Unfortunately, singling out Metallica from Tool does create some misperceptions here, though.

The monkeys did not respond one way or another to the other pieces of music. Does this mean that farmers who play classical music to their cows to keep them calm might be kidding themselves? Shouldn't Adagio for Strings have made these monkeys sad? If animals are part of the same continuum that we are, shouldn't they respond in ways similar to we humans to the joy, the sorrow, the anger, the range of human emotions that we can hear in a powerful piece of music?

Perhaps what we're talking about is more related to this accelerating generation gap we looked at above. Are our more subtle responses to music mainly cultural, mainly a learned behavior? In the same way that a young child might now expect that all viewing screens are multi-touch displays, perhaps our varying emotional responses to the music of the last four hundred years or so is something we've been trained into through repetition?

The key here is understanding that the monkeys responded to the highly rhythmic music of Tool and Metallica, and didn't respond to the long phrases and more free tempos of the other two pieces. What is the common denominator behind the development of music? Repeating structures. The drum. Patterns that can entrain the heartbeat and breath, that make a creature feel a certain way when they move along with the music. Adagio for Strings, then, is just a too subtle for our monkey friends to hear as a communication of emotion: this a generation gap of a different magnitude but similar nonetheless.

But where this gets even more interesting is when Dr. Snowdon brought in David Teie, a cellist with the American National Symphony Orchestra, to create some pieces of music that were inspired by (but to be clear, not specifically based upon) the sounds these monkeys use to communicate to each other. Here are a couple of the pieces: first, one inspired by the sounds these animals commonly produce when things are fine.

This second piece has melodic and rhythmic connections to the calls the tamarins produce when they are anxious or alarmed:

Certainly, this music sounds odd to our ears, but the tamarins responded as you might expect: they lounged around and ate more when the first piece of music was playing, and became upset when the second piece played. Any film soundtrack composer exercises their creativity in plugging into these same underlying connections, finding ways to soothe us, or ways to upset us with the palette of sounds, the melodic shapes and the rhythmic structures they choose. Clearly, Dr. Snowdon would have to experiment with a much larger range of musical compositions that are generally agreed to communicate a variety of specific emotions to humans, and I'm certain that such experiments would help to reveal what is primal and what is learned in modern humans' reactions to music of all kinds.

So, do Monkeys Love Metallica? Definitely a gross generalization, even if it's fun to use as a headline! But can monkeys respond emotionally to some kinds of music? This scientific study points to "yes".

Enjoy the journey,

Rob Bryanton

Next: Noein

1 comment:

Alex Martynov said...

Very interesting entry.
Thanks, Rob!

I'm myself a guy who listens mostly to a "strange" contemporary music. And I was always interested in topics about music perception.

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