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Chimps’ indifference to Beethoven and Bieber underscores the ‘humanness’ of music

REUTERS/Daniel Munoz
Chimpanzees were more likely to enter the music area when the music had a lower number of beats per minute — as was the case with several of the classical pieces.

Playing music — whether Beethoven or Bieber — to chimpanzees has no effect on the animals’ behavior or wellbeing, according to a new study.

Many zoos and other places that house chimpanzees broadcast music for these animals. It’s done out of a belief that the music provides some kind of mental stimulation and helps enrich the chimps’ lives, as it does for another group of primates — humans.

Previous research involving chimpanzees and music has been inconclusive, however, with some showing benefits and others showing none.

So a team of British and American researchers decided to conduct a series of carefully designed studies with chimpanzees at the Edinburgh Zoo and at the National Centre for Chimpanzee Care in Texas.

First, they played for the chimps different selections of music, including classical works of Beethoven and Mozart, pop/rock songs of Adele, Kanye West, Justin Bieber and Bruno Mars (among others) and African folk songs. The chimpanzees could enter or exit the music-filled areas whenever they wanted.

“The chimpanzees seemed to show little reaction to music generally,” spending similar amounts of time in an area whether or not music was playing, the researchers report in their paper. “This suggests that the animals did not actively seek out the music but equally they were not trying to avoid it.”

Interestingly, the researchers did find that the chimpanzees were more likely to enter the music area when the music had a lower number of beats per minute — as was the case with several of the classical pieces. And they were quicker to exit the area when a song had a higher number of beats per minute — as occurs, say, in Bieber’s “Beauty and a Beat.” 

A ‘chimpanzee jukebox’

No, this finding doesn’t mean the chimps preferred Beethoven to Bieber. It just suggests, say the researchers, that the animals may have a “preference” for music with slower rhythms.

The emphasis is on may, for none of the music affected the animals’ behavior or activity levels in any way. It made them neither more passive nor more aggressive, for example. Nor did it make them more or less likely to spend time engaging in activities like self-grooming.

In one of the experiments, the chimps were given a type of “jukebox,” which enabled them to select if they wanted to listen to music or not. Again, the music appeared to have no effect on the animals. They showed no preference for music (of any type) over silence — or for silence over music.

“These results suggest that music is not something that is relevant to captive chimpanzees and are supported by recent work with zoo-housed orangutans that were unable to distinguish music from digitally scrambled noise,” said Emma Wallace, the study’s lead author and a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of York, in a released statement. “However, whilst music does not appear to have a positive effect on captive chimpanzee welfare, it equally did not have any negative effects.”

The human angle

Of course, what makes this study particularly intriguing is not what it says about chimpanzees, but what it says about those other primates: humans.

“Music seems to be universal amongst human populations and it is even suggested that human language evolved from vocal origins in the form of communal singing,” write Wallace and her colleagues. “However, what constitutes music varies greatly between cultures and therefore it may be unlikely that a human construct with global variation will be considered enjoyable by any other species, even one as closely related as chimpanzees.”

Yet, just because music is not a successful form of enrichment for chimps doesn’t mean zoos should stop broadcasting it, say the researchers. 

It can still be played for the animals’ caregivers, they point out.

FMI: The study was published in the journal PLOS One, where it can be read online in full.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Howard Miller on 03/31/2017 - 10:03 am.

    methodological error

    Clearly chimps are among we mammals who prefer American jazz.

    Horrible oversight to exclude that genre from the test list!

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