Rhythmic entrainment – in animals?

Greetings from the ICMPC10 in Sapporo! This is the biggest gathering of music cognition researchers and takes place every other year. It’s always great to meet old friends, make new ones, and hear about the newest developments in the field. In the multi-disciplinary field of music cognition, these conferences are important also for the international collaborations that are quickly becoming the default way of doing research.

The great thing about the ICMPC is that it brings together very different researchers and covers a wide variety of themes and questions. One of the fields where a lot of buzz has been created recently is the study of animal cognition and especially components of “musicality” in animals.

Humans aren’t the biggest, fastest or strongest animals on earth. Our senses aren’t especially acute, and their range is often disappointing. We might do pretty well when it comes to covering huge distances on foot, but what really sets us apart and makes us the dominant species on the earth is our cognition. The question is, what exactly is so special in it?

For long we thought it was language. But “language” isn’t just one thing and now it seems that other primates are capable of using symbolic representation of concepts and rule-based systems for communication. In music cognition, one of the key issues is whether any animals are capable of rhythmic entrainment – or in other words, capable of synchronising with the beat in music.

This skill is not only (nearly) universal in humans, but it is also automatic and almost impossible to turn off. Without even noticing, we tap our feet or bob our heads in time with a groovy piece of music, synchronise our applause after a great concert, or start walking in step when “walking and talking” with someone. This skill is also fundamental not only to music but a host of other functions, many other forms of communication, for example. Therefore it is very interesting that there have been no reported cases of non-human rhythmic entrainment. Until perhaps now.

OK, so many species can produce periodic sounds or movements, rhythmic behaviour, if you will. Some species, such as fireflies and certain frogs can get entrained to each other, for instance fireflies in large swarms often flash in synchrony. This process itself is very simple and can be observed in non-animate objects as well, and indeed was first documented and formally described after observing it in the pendula of clocks. What humans do, however, is a bit more special, in a word more flexible. First of all, the entrainment can be other than simply quasi-isochronous: we can entrain to rhythmic patterns and uneven beats (pendula or fireflies can’t), move across different metrical levels (tap every beat, every other beat, twice in a beat etc.) and do all this in a relatively wide range of tempi. Also, our entrainment is cross-modal; we can entrain silent movements to auditory stimuli, so it’s not only about matching sound with sound or flash with flash.

Evolutionarily speaking, we aren’t exactly cousins with either fireflies or frogs. The absence of entrainment abilities in our closer relatives is very noteworthy, as it suggests that the process that keeps fireflies synced is probably closer to the process that goes on in pendula (or in the artificial synchronising “fireflies“) than the process that goes on in the human mind-body.

So, for long there was no evidence of any rhythmic entrainment in animals, but just recently there have been a number of suggested cases, and two of them have been presented and discussed in the ICMPC10. The first “case” is Snowball the dancing cockatoo. The video of Snowball dancing to his favourite song, “Everybody” by the Backstreet Boys is hilarious, and versions of it can be found in YouTube and through Snowball’s blog. The interesting part is the study by Ani Patel and his colleagues that involved a test of one of the criteria set above, namely the flexibility of entrainment across different tempi. The point here is that this could help rule out the alternative hypothesis that Snowball just happens to like to move in that particular frequency. What Patel et al. found was that there indeed were bouts of synchrony (although, as you can see in the video, these were short and a lot of the time the movements, while rhythmic and periodic in nature, aren’t actually synced with the music) and these were found also when the tempo of the song was altered, and these tempo alterations had an effect to the range of tempi that Snowball was bobbing his head in. So, clearly the movements are synced only for short times, but there seems to be a genuine connection between music and movement.

However, birds are frustratingly far from us in the evolutionary tree. They are considerably closer relatives with us than the flies and frogs, but  to trace the evolutionary origins of this ability, we would like to know if our closest cousins, other primates have it. Of these primates, the closest ones are the bonobos. We share a common ancestor about 6 million years ago.

Bonobos are impressively smart and they have been shown to be able to learn a wide variety of social and communicative skills. Now, there are also claims that some of the best known (and most privileged in terms of the enriched environment in which they live in) bonobo superstars are also keenly engaging in musical activities. These activities include playing duets with Peter Gabriel and Sir Paul McCartney.

Again, this data was presented and discussed in the conference. I have to say, I was more impressed by Snowball than I was by Kanzi or his sister Panbanisha. The “music” consists of K or P “playing” a keyboard synth while the experimenters (or Peter Gabriel) plays another in another room. The carer of the bonobos gives instructions and guides them to keep playing “quietly” or with their fingers when they get bored, start banging the keyboard or resort to their knuckles instead of fingers.

As in the Snowball-data, there were bouts of synchrony, and this was offered as evidence for rhythmic entrainment. However, from 3 days of intense observation and experimentation, very little data was actually analysed. And from the bouts where there seems to be entrainment, it is not really clear if the entrainer is the human or the bonobo. The analysis suggests it is the bonobo that adjusts, but as there was no proper control for this, it is actually difficult to say. I’m extra doubtful about this, as for instance, when Peter Gabriel picked a melody from P’s playing that was used as evidence of musical creative collaboration. What it actually only shows is that P.G. is capable of imitating a melodic fragment, even when it comes from an ape (his experience of playing in Genesis probably comes in handy here).

I think the biggest problem I have with the bonobo-case is the way in which the behaviour of these animals seems to be over-interpreted as human behaviour, assigning all kinds of intentions and meanings to things, without properly analysing or considering alternative explanations or even simply sticking with what the data or observations actually show. Of course, the linguistic abilities of these bonobos are extremely impressive, their social awareness seems to be very high, but I wouldn’t say that banging a piano while Peter Gabriel is playing fluffy new age mush on another piano constitutes “making music together”.

It seems that when they wanted to try if these bonobos would “do” “music”, they took “music” as we understand it now in the Western society. For instance, recorded music was introduced to their daily routines. Also, the bonobos attended performances of music, were instructed to play “musical pieces” and used complicated instruments to produce sounds. None of these aspects is universally found in the music cultures today, and definitely are relatively late additions to the spectrum of musical activities even in the Western world. Moreover, in this study, music is treated as entertainment, pastime and source of sensory pleasure, and human music serves other, for instance communicative functions. Therefore we are at best comparing apples with oranges here.

While it is a bit difficult to get an objective view of the abilities of Kanzi, Panbanisha and others from among all the hype and overinterpretation that is going on, it is still great to see this work being done and if there’s going to be a solid answer to the question of the title of this post, it is very likely to come from here. It will require a more rigorous procedure of testing and a clearer focus, even though the entrainment analysis itself is objective and blind to any explanations or conceptualisations used.

Still, barely managing bouts of synchrony every now and again is far from what humans show: being able to flexibly engage with all kinds of signals across modalities and in fact not being able to avoid it. Whether this is a difference in kind or that of a degree remains open.

One thought on “Rhythmic entrainment – in animals?

  1. Pingback: Birds and the beats « Synchronised Minds

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