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Zoomusicology is a field of musicology and zoology or more specifically, zoosemiotics. Zoomusicology is the study of the music of animals, animal music or rather the musical aspects of sound or communication produced and received by animals.[1]

Zoomusicology may be distinguished from ethnomusicology, the study of human music.

Human interaction

Snowden and Teie created species-specific music and tested it on cotton-top tamarins, Saguinus oedipus at the University of Wisconsin.[2] The results of this study, indicated that species-specific music was the most effective music to elicit a response.[2] There have also been cases where composers have performed with animals for example, David Rothenberg, is a musician who has created music with humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae.[3] Both of these examples are discussed in greater detail below.

Composers have evoked or imitated animal sounds in compositions including Jean-Philippe Rameau's The Hen (1728), Camille Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals (1886), Olivier Messiaen's Catalogue of the Birds (1956–58) and Pauline Oliveros's El Relicario de los Animales (1977).[4] Other examples include Alan Hovhaness's And God Created Great Whales (1970), George Crumb's Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) (1971) and Gabriel Pareyon's Invention over the song of the Vireo atriccapillus (1999) and Kha Pijpichtli Kuikatl (2003). The Indian zoomusicologist, A. J. Mithra has composed music using bird, animal and frog sounds since 2008.[5]

Various Experiments Involving the Investigation of Zoomusicology


Saguinus oedipus (Linnaeus, 1758)

Snowden and Teie performed an experiment on Cotton-top tamarins, Saguinus oedipus, to determine if music would lead to behavioural changes, and whether music made by other species would elicit similar behavioural responses as the music of one’s own species. [6] This experiment involved two separate categories of music - one was affiliation-based, the other was fear/threat-based music. Within the two categories, the experimenter varied whether the music was produced by humans or tamarins.[6] During the experiment, a baseline behaviour measurement was established, proceeded by the experimental condition, which was a piece of music that was played for 30 seconds. Following this, behaviour was analyzed for a total of 5 minutes. This analysis was made by an observer who was unaware of the true hypothesis of the experiment, and simply noted different behaviours which they had witnessed.[6] The experimenters found that the Tamarins altered their behaviour specifically when listening to Tamarin music. For example, when music from the affiliation condition was played, the behavioural response of the tamarins involved a decrease in overall movement and an increase in both social and foraging behaviour.[6] This contrasted the behaviour observed when the fear/threat based music was played. During this condition, the Tamarins were more likely to move around and show anxiety-based behaviour, as well as, an increase in social behaviour similar to that seen in the affiliation condition. It should also be noted that while the Tamarins did not show behavioural changes to human music as clearly as they did to their species-specific music, there was some behavioural change.[6] The Tamarins showed decreased movement when listening to human fear/threat based music and a decrease in anxious behaviour when listening to human affiliation music. This experiment, demonstrates that music is capable of eliciting changes in the behaviour of animals, most especially when the music is species-specific.

Baleine à bosse et son baleineau 2

Humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae, are capable of the production of complex songs.[7] These songs are amongst some of the longest measured in animals. Only male humpback whales perform these vocalizations; it was initially hypothesized that these songs may be a part of the sexual selection process. This point however, is unclear. It has been found that males only began their song after joining a group where pairs of mother and calf were present.[8] Although the reason behind this behaviour is uncertain, some have hypothesized that the songs produced by male humpback whales may be a part of escorting, or accompanying females. It should also be noted that singing can be a costly behaviour, because it can lead to more attention being drawn. In the humpback whales’ situation, their singing can attract other competing males.[8] Yet, the singing behaviour continues and therefore, it is assumed that the songs are critical to the courtship behaviour of the humpback whales.


Song Sparrow

Perhaps the most well-known form of music found in non-human animals is birdsong.[9] Birdsong is different from normal calls. For example, a call will usually simply function to communicate a direct message.[9] For instance, a bird call could be used to direct attention that a predator is near. Meanwhile a song contains more repetition and usually will have distinct structure to it, with a specific beginning, middle, and end.[9] In many species of songbirds, songs seem to be used both as a way to attract potential mates, as well as to mark and defend one's territory. It has been observed that young songbirds acquire their ability to produce song from imitation of adult birds.[9] Interestingly enough, there seems to be a critical period for song learning. In one experiment, they compared birds raised in isolation, (this involved isolation from other birds as well as the vocalizations of other birds), with those raised in a colony, without these forms of isolation.[9] Using an fMRI scan and the blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) as a measurement of brain activity, it was found that birds raised in the isolation condition did not appear to show a preference between their own songs and a repetitive song. Meanwhile colony-raised birds showed a stronger reaction to their own song being played back.[9]


Imago O furnacalis

One potential barrier in the study of zoomusicology is that there are some forms of music produced by various animals which humans are incapable of hearing.[10] This music is very low in amplitude and is known as quiet song, whisper communication, or soft song.[10] This low amplitude music has been shown in birds, as well as insects and is linked to behaviour. Moth species have been shown to have developed the ability to communicate using ultrasonic sounds, and this ability has transferred over to their production of soft songs. In the Asian corn borer moth, Ostrinia furnacalis, males produce an ultrasonic soft song to initiate courtship behaviour.[10] The song that the male produces is so quiet that the female must be within a range of three centimeters in order to hear the song. In hearing the song, the female stays in one place and is completely still, this allows the male to initiate mating behaviour.[10] The reason that the female remains still, is because this song sounds very similar to sounds that a bat would produce. The female therefore remains still in order to avoid potential predation. There is of course another added benefit to this soft song produced by the male Asian corn borer moth, and that is that the song is so quiet that it decreases the males’ predation risk.[10] Although these soft songs are far less well-known to the general public, they are an important aspect of zoomusicology and the further understanding of animal behaviour.    


A number of researchers in fields ranging from music to semiotics to philosophy to biology are doing zoomusicological research, since this field is so broad and reaches so many disciplines. Musician and zoomusicologist Hollis Taylor has conducted an extensive study of the Pied Butcherbird over the past 15 years, including interdisciplinary research with philosophers and scientists.[11] Clarinettist, improvisor, and philosopher David Rothenberg plays music with animals, and has written books on the relationship between bird, insect, and whale song and human music.[3] Composer Emily Doolittle has written numerous pieces based on animal songs, and has published interdisciplinary music-science research on the hermit thrush[12] and the musician wren.[13] Susan Belanger has also contributed to the field of zoomusicology, with her work on soft song in the asian corn borer moth, Ostrinia furnacalis and its relationship to the initiation of mating behaviour.[14] Researcher Patricia Gray has examined the music that can be seen in whales and songbirds.[15] This list is by no means all encompassing, but simply lists some notable members of the zoomusicology research community.

See also


  1. ^ Doolittle, Emily; Gingras, Bruno (October 2015). "Zoomusicology". Current Biology. 25 (19): R819–R820. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2015.06.039. ISSN 0960-9822. PMID 26439331.
  2. ^ a b Snowdon, C. T. and Teie, D. (2010). "Affective responses in tamarins elicited by species-specific music". Biology Letters of the Royal Society B. 6 (1): 30–32. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2009.0593. PMC 2817256. PMID 19726444. Retrieved 20 July 2014.
  3. ^ a b "TRANS - Revista Transcultural de Música - Transcultural Music Review". www.sibetrans.com (in Spanish). Retrieved 2018-11-16.
  4. ^ Von Gunden, Heidi (1983). The Music of Pauline Oliveros. p. 133. ISBN 978-0-8108-1600-8.
  5. ^ "Interview: a j mithra, Making Music with Animal Calls", IndiasEndangered.com. "The only known zoo musicologist in India and the second in the world after Jim Fassett who was known to create similar music from animal sounds way back in 1955."
  6. ^ a b c d e Snowdon, Charles T.; Teie, David (2010-02-23). "Affective responses in tamarins elicited by species-specific music". Biology Letters. 6 (1): 30–32. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2009.0593. ISSN 1744-9561. PMC 2817256. PMID 19726444.
  7. ^ "TRANS - Revista Transcultural de Música - Transcultural Music Review". www.sibetrans.com (in Spanish). Retrieved 2018-10-24.
  8. ^ a b Smith, Joshua N.; Goldizen, Anne W.; Dunlop, Rebecca A.; Noad, Michael J. (2008-08). "Songs of male humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae, are involved in intersexual interactions". Animal Behaviour. 76 (2): 467–477. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2008.02.013. ISSN 0003-3472. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  9. ^ a b c d e f Rothenberg, David; Roeske, Tina C.; Voss, Henning U.; Naguib, Marc; Tchernichovski, Ofer (2014-02). "Investigation of musicality in birdsong". Hearing Research. 308: 71–83. doi:10.1016/j.heares.2013.08.016. ISSN 0378-5955. PMC 3947120. PMID 24036130. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  10. ^ a b c d e Balenger, Susan L. (2015-07). "Stridulated soft song by singing insects". Animal Behaviour. 105: 275–280. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2015.03.024. ISSN 0003-3472. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  11. ^ TAYLOR, HOLLIS (March 2014). "Whose Bird Is It? Messiaen's Transcriptions of Australian Songbirds". Twentieth-Century Music. 11 (1): 63–100. doi:10.1017/s1478572213000194. ISSN 1478-5722.
  12. ^ Doolittle, Emily; Gingras, Bruno; Endres, Dominik; Fitch, Tecumseh (2014-11-18). "Overtone-based pitch selection in hermit thrush song: Unexpected convergence with scale construction in human music". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 111 (46): 16616–16621. doi:10.1073/pnas.1406023111. PMC 4246323. PMID 25368163.
  13. ^ Doolittle, Emily; Henrik Brumm. "O Canto do Uirapuru" (PDF).
  14. ^ Balenger, Susan L. (2015-07). "Stridulated soft song by singing insects". Animal Behaviour. 105: 275–280. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2015.03.024. ISSN 0003-3472. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  15. ^ Gray, Patricia M.; Krause, Bernie; Atema, Jelle; Payne, Roger; Krumhansl, Carol; Baptista, Luis (2001). "The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music". Science. 291 (5501): 52–54. JSTOR 3082167.

External links

  • Zoomusicology by Dario Martinelli
  • Zoosemiotics - Animal communication on the web
  • Zoomusicology by Hollis Taylor
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