Igor Stravinsky once characterized his music as being “best understood by children and animals.”

Though some people might not agree with it, Stravinsky’s claim highlights an intriguing evolutionary question: Is our appreciation for music innate? And, if so, would that appreciation be shared by our evolutionary ancestors?

A new study slated for publication in the journal Cognition reports that our ancestors may not, in fact, be audiophiles. Non-human primates appear to prefer silence to music, suggesting that musical appreciation may be uniquely human.

“We’re really in the first stages of looking into these things,” said Josh McDermott, a perceptual scientist at MIT and coauthor of the study. “But everything we’ve done suggests fairly striking differences in the way that humans hear music and the way that animals do.”

McDermott and Harvard evolutionary psychologist Marc D. Hauser found in earlier studies that tamarin and marmoset monkeys have the ability to discriminate between different types of music to the point of noticing pieces written by different composers.

But to tease out whether monkeys actually “like” music, the scientists set up a maze consisting of two equivalent paths with speakers at each end. When a monkey was released into the maze, it could wander into one side and hear a lullaby. On the other side, it heard silence.

Each of the four tamarins and five marmosets the scientists tested spent significantly more time on the silent side of the maze, suggesting that they preferred silence to music.

The researchers also studied whether the monkeys had preferences between fast and slow-paced music by giving them a choice between a Russian lullaby and German techno music. They preferred the lullaby.

This preference, Hauser predicts, may be because lullabies are known to trigger more pleasant emotional responses.

“The continuity of the melody of a lullaby is something that is designed to calm,” he said, adding that preferences for slower tempos “may have very ancient evolutionary roots.”

Erin Hannon, a psychologist at Harvard who studies music perception, disagrees.

“It is not clear from the literature that humans prefer slow to fast tempos,” she wrote in an email.

More research is needed to determine whether the preference non-human primates appear to have is indicative of an evolutionarily conserved trait, she added.

But Hannon does agree that the new research provides key information about non-human primates that could help us to understand the origins of music.

“These experiments clarify that the animals can in fact show preferences in response to music,” she wrote. “Yet, it also shows that these animals just aren’t generally very interested in music.”

For his part, McDermott says it will be important to repeat the experiment with smarter—and larger—primates, such as apes and chimpanzees. He guesses that tamarins and marmosets, both very small, may dislike music because it prevents them from hearing more biologically relevant sounds.

“One of their dominant motivations is avoiding becoming a meal for someone,” he said.

Larger animals may exhibit different preferences simply because of their size.

McDermott is also spearheading a global online study to determine whether musical preferences are universal and therefore innate.

Originally published September 21, 2006

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