Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Hey Hey! We’re The Monkeys!

A tamarin rock star
(photographed by Ltshears at Wikimedia)
Our moods change when we hear music, but not all music affects us the same way. Slow, soft, higher-pitched, melodic songs soothe us; upbeat classical music makes us more alert and active; and fast, harsh, lower-pitched, dissonant music can rev us up and stress us out. Why would certain sounds affect us in specific emotional ways? One possibility is because of an overlap between how we perceive music and how we perceive human voice. Across human languages, people talk to their babies in slower, softer, higher-pitched voices than they speak to adults. And when we’re angry, we belt out low-pitched growly tones. The specific vocal attributes that we use in different emotional contexts are specific to our species… So what makes us so egocentric to think that other species might respond to our music in the same ways that we do?

A serene tamarin ponders where he placed
his smoking jacket (photographed by
Michael Gäbler at Wikimedia)
Chuck Snowdon, a psychologist and animal behaviorist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and David Teie, a musician at the University of Maryland in College Park, teamed up to ask whether animals might respond more strongly to music if it were made specifically for them.

Cotton-top tamarins are squirrel-sized monkeys from northern Colombia that are highly social and vocal. As in humans (and pretty much every other vocalizing species studied), they tend to make higher-pitched tonal sounds when in friendly states and lower-pitched growly sounds when in aggressive states. But tamarin vocalizations have different tempos and pitch ranges than our tempos and pitch ranges.

Chuck and David musically analyzed recorded tamarin calls to determine the common attributes of the sounds they make when they are feeling friendly or when they are aggressive or fearful. Then they composed music based on these attributes, essentially creating tamarin happy-music and tamarin death metal. They also composed original music based on human vocal attributes. They played 30-second clips of these different music types to pairs of tamarins and measured their behavior while the song was being played and for the first 5 minutes after it had finished. They compared these behavioral measures to the tamarins’ behavior during baseline periods (time periods not associated with the music sessions).

An example of happy tamarin music (Copyright by David Teie and available through Biology Letters) can be found here.
An example of aggressive tamarin music (Copyright by David Teie and available through Biology Letters) can be found here.
As the researchers had predicted, tamarins were much more affected by tamarin music than by human music. Happy tamarin music seemed to calm them, causing the tamarins to move less and eat and drink more in the 5 minutes after the music stopped. Compared to the happy tamarin music, the aggressive tamarin music seemed to stress them out, causing the tamarins to move more and show more anxious behaviors (like bristling their fur and peeing) after the music stopped.

The tamarins also showed lesser reactions to the human music. They showed less anxious behavior after the happy human music played and moved less after the aggressive human music played. So, human voice-based music also affected the tamarins to some degree, but not as strongly. This may be because there are some aspects of how we communicate emotions with our voice that are the same in tamarins. (How did the tamarin music make you feel?)

Can you imagine what we could do with this idea of species-specific music? Well, David and Chuck did! They have since developed music for cats using similar techniques. Although they're still working on the paper, they have said that the cats prefered and were more calmed by cat music compared to human music. You can find samples and get your own copies here.

We often think of vocal signals conveying messages in particular sounds, like words and sentences. But calls seem to do much more than that, making the emotions and behaviors of those listening resemble the emotions of those calling.

Want to know more? Check this out:

Snowdon, C., & Teie, D. (2009). Affective responses in tamarins elicited by species-specific music Biology Letters, 6 (1), 30-32 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2009.0593

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