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Why We Love Music: A Harmonica-Playing Elephant Explains

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In the photo: Shanthi the musical pachyderm.
Sabri Ben-Achour
In the photo: Shanthi the musical pachyderm.

People moonlight as musicians, but they may not be the only ones. At the National Zoo, there is someone who recently revealed her secret love of music: Shanthi, the Asian elephant.

Elephant keeper Debbie Flinkman says Shanthi loves making sounds.

"Shanti is so interested in finding ways to make interesting noises that she will explore her entire exhibit indoors and outdoors, and anyplace that she can find that makes the noise," says Flinkman. "If it is interesting to her, she will stand there and repeat that noise."

Flinkman ended up fastening a harmonica to a wall in Shanthi's enclosure, and Shanthi would play it. Is that music though? What is music? And why do we even have music?

Music is organized sound. Some people say "humanly organized sound," since just "organized sound" encompasses a lot. It usually involves tones (octaves divided up in different ways along a scale) and/or a rhythm. And for humans, some people think it's totally useless.

An evolutionary accident?

Dan Levitin, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at McGill University, says back in 1997, scientist Steven Pinker at Harvard got up before a group of musicologists and cognitive scientists and at their meeting said music was like "cheesecake" — auditory cheesecake.

"Cheesecake is interesting," he says. "We have great fondness, but we didn't evolve to like cheesecake. It was a byproduct. What happened was that in our hunter gatherer days there was an adaptive strategy to load up on fats and sweets."

So because we, for other reasons, like fats and sweets, we like cheesecake too. It doesn't mean that cheesecake serves an evolutionary purpose goes the argument.

"He said the same thing applies to music — that our brains evolved to want to communicate with language, and music just hopped along for the evolutionary ride," he says.

So, for example, human babies can keep a beat; most music has a beat, but most animals, have no rhythm. Macaques, for instance are monkeys that sing to mark their territory.

Researchers tried to train these guys to just tap their finger in time to a metronome.

They practiced four hours a day for year, but they couldn't do it. And then, a cockatoo named Snowball shows up. He's dancing, keeping time, bobbing his head, and kicking his feet.

"Species that do this, seem to be species that do vocal mimicry," says Greg Bryant, assistant professor at UCLA's Department of Communication Studies.

So cockatoos don't dance in the wild, there's no evolutionary reason why they would have evolved to keep a beat, but they can. These birds evolved vocal mimicry — the ability to hear something and reproduce it — and that, somehow, laid the foundations for the ability to keep a beat.

"So that might be the evolutionary origins of our abilities too, since we can also do vocal mimicry," explains Bryant.

But does that mean our music is an evolutionary accident?

Babytalk to Beethoven

Ellen Dissanayake is the author of Art and Intimacy. As she watches a video of a mother and baby, she explains her theory.

"All over the world, adults behave with their babies in ways they don't with each other," she says. "They make funny facial expressions, move their heads and bodies in different ways, and they talk in a higher pitched tone with a lot of vocal contours, repetitions... it is very musical."

The universally sing-song way mothers and babies interact, she says, could have been the kernel, a million years ago, of what we know as music. She says it could have started as an emotional bonding system that increased the survival of infants. If parents bonded to their babies like this, paid more attention to their babies, and were more present for their early years of dependence, then those offspring would be better off for it.

"In many societies, there is this similarity in that mothers and babies look in each other's eyes, they lock into this close intimacy, then the mothers exaggerate their tone of voice — higher, lower, undulant, repetitive, or sounds — put into patterns," she says.

But it's more than the fact that they "sing" together; it's also that they move together, they follow one another. And that, says Dissanayake, is what music has been about for most societies.


Several theorists think music served a different evolutionary adaptation.

"For me its about group cooperation," says Steven Brown, assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience, and behavior at McMaster University. "So features like rhythm are about synchronizing behavior—dancing, moving—then we have features of choral singing like polyphony which involves coordinating musical parts. Things like harmony, polyphony, rhythm, seem to support something about group coordination, integration, and cooperation."

He says it's rarely seen in animals.

"It would seem that music in some way is to emotionally support," he says.

Levitin says there's evidence for that. He explains when people play music together, the bonding hormone oxytocin, is released. Language doesn't produce it.

"If you look at other primate societies, there's no primate society that has more than 18 males in a living group, because rivalries cause it to break apart," he says. "But humans have lived together in groups of thousands of people for thousands of years."

A Tune Is Worth  Thousand Words

Or maybe, here's one last idea, music used to be how we talked to each other, before we talked at all.

"Humans have been around for 50-200,000 years, but only had written language for 5,000," says Flinkman. "So it would appear that knowledge was retained in song. Music has structural features that are better for information than language! Rhythm, melody, these conspire to limit or bound the words that can fit. If you think about your early learning, kids learn a lot through song. We learn the alphabet through song."

Back at the Zoo, Shanthi loves to make sounds. Is it music? Flinkman says it sounds more than just play to her.

"I don't have a music degree, but beauty's is in the eye of the beholder, so I figure a song is in the ear of the listener, so I think it's music, she says. "I think she likes it."

[Music: "Baby Elephant Walk" by Quincy Jones from Quincy Jones Explores the Music of Henry Mancini]

Video of Shanthi, the Asian elephant, playing the harmonica:

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