Birdsong study pecks theory that music is uniquely human

by Carol Clark
Birdsong study pecks theory that music is uniquely human
Sometimes he sounds like music to her ears. Other times, not so much.

(Medical Xpress)—A bird listening to birdsong may experience some of the same emotions as a human listening to music, suggests a new study on white-throated sparrows, published in Frontiers of Evolutionary Neuroscience.

"We found that the same neural is activated in in the breeding state that are listening to male birdsong, and in people listening to that they like," says Sarah Earp, who led the research as an undergraduate at Emory University.

For listening to another male's song, it was a different story: They had an amygdala response that looks similar to that of people when they hear discordant, unpleasant music.

The study, co-authored by Emory neuroscientist Donna Maney, is the first to compare neural responses of listeners in the long-standing debate over whether birdsong is music.

"Scientists since the time of Darwin have wondered whether birdsong and music may serve similar purposes, or have the same evolutionary precursors," Earp notes. "But most attempts to compare the two have focused on the qualities of the sound themselves, such as melody and rhythm."

Earp's curiosity was sparked while an honors student at Emory, majoring in both neuroscience and music. She took "The Musical Brain" course developed by Paul Lennard, director of Emory's Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology program, which brought in guest lecturers from the fields of neuroscience and music.

"During one class, the guest speaker was a composer and he said that he thought that birdsong is like music, but Dr. Lennard thought it was not," Earp recalls. "It turned into this huge debate, and each of them seemed to define music differently. I thought it was interesting that you could take one question and have two conflicting answers that are both right, in a way, depending on your perspective and how you approach the question."

As a senior last year, Earp received a grant from the Scholars Program for Interdisciplinary (SPINR), and a position in the lab of Maney, who uses songbirds as a model to study the neural basis of complex learned behavior.

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Perhaps your brain would enjoy some music while reading this. Here's a sample of Earp's favorite: "Firebird."

When Earp proposed using the lab's data to investigate the birdsong-music debate, Maney thought it was a great idea. "Birdsong is a signal," Maney says. "And the definition of a signal is that it elicits a response in the receiver. Previous studies hadn't approached the question from that angle, and it's an important one."

Earp reviewed studies that mapped human neural responses to music through brain imaging.

She also analyzed data from the Maney lab on white-throated . The lab maps brain responses in the birds by measuring Egr-1, part of a major biochemical pathway activated in cells that are responding to a stimulus.

The study used Egr-1 as a marker to map and quantify neural responses in the mesolimbic reward system in male and female white-throated sparrows listening to a male bird's song. Some of the listening birds had been treated with hormones, to push them into the breeding state, while the control group had low levels of estradiol and testosterone.

During the non-breeding season, both sexes of sparrows use song to establish and maintain dominance in relationships. During the breeding season, however, a male singing to a female is almost certainly courting her, while a male singing to another male is challenging an interloper.

For the females in the breeding state every region of the mesolimbic reward pathway that has been reported to respond to music in humans, and that has a clear avian counterpart, responded to the male birdsong. Females in the non-breeding state, however, did not show a heightened response.

And the testosterone-treated males listening to another male sing showed an amygdala response, which may correlate to the amygdala response typical of humans listening to the kind of music used in the scary scenes of horror movies.

"The to birdsong appears to depend on social context, which can be the case with humans as well," Earp says. "Both and music elicit responses not only in brain regions associated directly with reward, but also in interconnected regions that are thought to regulate emotion. That suggests that they both may activate evolutionarily ancient mechanisms that are necessary for reproduction and survival."

A major limitation of the study, Earp adds, is that many of the regions that respond to music in humans are cortical, and they do not have clear counterparts in birds.

"Perhaps techniques will someday be developed to image neural responses in baleen whales, whose songs are both musical and learned, and whose brain anatomy is more easily compared with humans," she says.

Earp, who played the viola in the Emory orchestra and graduated last May, is now a medical student at the Cleveland Clinic.

So what music makes her brain light up? "Stravinsky's 'Firebird' suite," Earp says.

More information:… nevo.2012.00014/full

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Dec 27, 2012
If whale song is music, I have a lot of ear training to do.
vlaaing peerd
Dec 27, 2012
As a graduate viola player she should know only humans are able to holistically understand the pretty complex mathematical/logarythmic relation of the notes in a chromatic scale (and other like Huygens 31-note scale). This makes music and its aestethically pleasing nature inherently different from noise such as bird songs which have other reasons to possibly sound pleasing or displeasing.

The comparison with horror movie music is completely out of line here because the male birds reponse to competing males songs have to do with recognising their sexual competition. Horrormovie music typically use scales which have a lot of dissonances in it (e.g. tritonus or lowered fifths)which you will never find back in bird songs.

In short, the reason for human music to be pleasing or not has to do with the choice of notes, the bird's song doesn't have anything to do with the choice of notes and therefore this research is pretty much useless or very unscientific in the least.
Dec 27, 2012
The 'breeding state and/or non breeding state' might not be the basis for the neural response stemming from social context.

If your setting isn't right - lack of recipients? - no chemical(hormonal?)state is going to make any 'music' serve a function. And still, birds sing by themselves. Or do they?

Of course humans sometimes assert 'it's all music to me'!
Blame composers for trying to express emotion(or anything?) musically.

The author points out the lack of 'counterparts' for birds.
A good study of pathway responses.
Dec 27, 2012
I have owned parrots for 20 years. I am also a trained musician and singer. One parrot frequently sings extended songs which are quite lyrical and can go on for 10's of minutes at a time without repeats. I have heard singing in both major and minor keys. There is clearly an emotional content. After years of observation, I can say that, without a doubt, parrots and other "smart" birds (raptors, crows, etc.) experience the same range of emotions as humans. Seeing a bird get embarrassed is one of the funniest things you can imagine. BTW: The parrot that sings also does macrame. Go figure!
Dec 27, 2012
Even the sounds humans make - the languages - are not universally understood. All sounds including that which is labeled 'music' by humans are inroads to understanding any life form using sound.
Dec 27, 2012
"As a graduate viola player she should know only humans are able to holistically understand the pretty complex mathematical/logarythmic relation of the notes in a chromatic scale".

That may be music to your ears, but to me it's just noise. I do know that volazing birds like parrots can make out rythm as tested with fRMIs recently, and that they therefore thoroughly enjoy music. (See for example the cockatoo Snowball dance to "Billie Jean".)

Scales are cultural inventions, so I don't see why they would be anymore relevant than ourselves not maing ant-pciking tools like some chimps: we don't go there (yet).

@ Tauch: The different neural circuits can have been exaptated for other use.

But ape calls serves a different function than singing in birds (who have warning sounds too, of course). The question then is how our language evolved. Rhythm is part of that, and the reward could have been different yet used the same pathways by convergence.
Dec 27, 2012
[cont] IIRC, birds have evolved singing in at least two separate clades (convergent evolution). And they definitely have a different voice system than us, IIRC they can have _two_ voice boxes in series!

The researchers could then look for reward handling in different clades, and see if it is convergent (on having neural controls for generic voice boxes, say).
vlaaing peerd
Dec 28, 2012
"As a graduate viola player she should know only humans are able to holistically understand the pretty complex mathematical/logarythmic relation of the notes in a chromatic scale".

That may be music to your ears, but to me it's just noise. I do know that volazing birds like parrots can make out rythm as tested with fRMIs recently, and that they therefore thoroughly enjoy music. (See for example the cockatoo Snowball dance to "Billie Jean".)

Scales are cultural inventions, so I don't see why they would be anymore relevant than ourselves not maing ant-pciking tools like some chimps: we don't go there (yet).

Scales are cultural preferences based most commonly on the 12 tone division, the 12-tones (and others like Indonesian gammalan and the 31-tone division) of the octave is not. This is a universal principle.

Euler and Huygens have written a great deal about this. I can recommend "Tentamen novae theoriae musicae" from Euler and "Novus cyclus harmonicus" from C. Huygens ...
vlaaing peerd
Dec 28, 2012

If you don't read Latin, French or Dutch I could recommend "Just music" from Patrice Bailhache, which is an excerpt of Euler's work. Other useful links:


http://thinkzone....Tone.htm novae theoriae musicae%22&source=bl&ots=Omi71gV7kz&sig=-iulQw700Quy77oQ5vMtM6xX4G0&hl=nl&ei=TmVlTYnZPIqSOqConO0F&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CB4Q6AEwATgK#v=onepage&q&f=false
vlaaing peerd
Dec 28, 2012

That Parrots are able to imitate a song or parts of a scale does not suprise me, but has little to do with musically perceiving a tune. I have yet to see proof of parrots able to "invent" a tune in a musical scale themselves.

Rythm is a totally different ballgame, but also here I would sincerely doubt animals are able to understand and enjoy the numeral division of beats in a bar other than just perceiving a regular pulse.

Against it I have to add that dogs and crows have shown the ability to count, which for them should enable the possibility to perceive some simple rythms, although a funky latin rythm would probably already be too complex.

I also want to add that when we speak about the chromatic scale, we actually don't mean a tonal scale but the most basic division of the 12 tones. Different from the common 7-tone scales it really isn't a cultural choice, like colour combinations can be a cultural preference but the whole colour palette isn't
vlaaing peerd
Dec 28, 2012
summarised, the mathematical principle behind scales IS NOT the reason that male birdsongs are perceived by competitor males as scary or unpleasant (that is what activity in the amygdala usually causes).

But in "scary" music the scales is what is causing the activity in the amygdala area. Failing to understand that or even dismissing the valuable work that the great scientists in the past have done for us isn't just not very scientific, it should be a crime.

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