Quest for musicality cruises past dancing cockatoo


Quest for musicality cruises past dancing cockatoo

Apes are genetically very similar to people, and yet they do not possess our musicality, whereas some birds flawlessly stick to the beat. How on earth can that be the case? Perhaps we developed our sense of rhythm as an alternative to flea picking, thinks Professor of Music Cognition Henkjan Honing. He wants to explore our capacity for music right down to our genes.

Henkjan Honing (photo: Bob Bronshoff)Henkjan Honing (photo: Bob Bronshoff)

About ten years ago, the antics of cockatoo Snowball were among the most-watched videos on YouTube. In the video, the white parrot-like bird dances as if its life depends on it to the beat of the Backstreet Boys. His head – with erect crest – bobs up and down and backwards and forwards, and he rhythmically sticks his legs in the air. Professor of Music Cognition Henkjan Honing from the University of Amsterdam watched the film with considerable amazement. ‘I wondered where this behaviour came from. Was it acquired or a biological predisposition?’, says Honing. ‘Could Darwin have been right when he said that all animals appreciate melody and rhythm?’

As far as Darwin is concerned, we can be brief: no, not all animals have a feeling for music. At least not according to the strict standards that Honing adopts. First of all, an animal needs to have a good sense of rhythm and secondly an ear for relative pitch. Without that, you cannot distinguish rhythms and melodies, and you have no “capacity for music” – the subject at the centre of his research. So a beautifully singing canary falls off the list. But cockatoo Snowball makes the grade as equally the sea lion Ronan. On a video, he shows that he can shake his head perfectly to the music of Earth, Wind & Fire. It does not matter how fast or slow the music is played, Ronan adjusts his “dancing speed”. How come he can do that, but other animals cannot? In his book “Aap slaat maat” [Ape defines the rhythm] Honing sets out in search of the answer. NWO co-funded the Horizon project that contributed to the writing of the book.

Did you know? Biologically speaking, our brains and the brains of some animals are apparently ready at birth for a sense of rhythm, the foundation of musicality.

Motor cortex

The discovery of a sense of rhythm in animals came shortly after Honing’s research into newborn babies. In this joint study with Hungarian researchers, he let fourteen infants listen to a rhythm in which a beat was occasionally left out. Measurements of the brain signals clearly revealed that the infants were surprised by unexpected silences in a repetitive rhythm. Conclusion: people are born with a sense of rhythm.

The centuries-old dogma that music is a cultural phenomenon was therefore relegated to the wastebasket. The performances of Snowball and Ronan also put an end to the myth that musicality is something uniquely human. ‘Biologically speaking, our brains and the brains of some animals are apparently ready at birth for a sense of rhythm, the foundation of musicality’, says Honing. ‘People have strong connections between the auditive and motor cerebral cortex. When study subjects listen to music in a functional MRI scanner, you can see they develop strong activity in the motor areas, even though they lie completely still.’ Another scientific fact is that the brain produces dopamine several seconds before a key chord in a piece of music is struck. Our expectations and the pleasure centre therefore play a role in our everyday listening to music.

Okay, that is interesting, but what exactly is the biological function of this penchant for musicality? Opinions about that are divided. According to Darwin, it is mainly related to sexual selection in animals – the male that sings the most beautifully or shouts the loudest attracts more females. So, is that why so many human singers get up on a podium? Nonsense, says Honing. ‘You might not think it, but scientific research has revealed that musicians have fewer children and less successful sexual relationships.’

Did you know? The brain produces dopamine several seconds before a key chord in a piece of music is struck. Our expectations and the pleasure centre therefore play a role in our everyday listening to music.

A theory he finds more plausible is that music is important for the social cohesion in a group. As people started to live in larger groups, picking fleas became increasingly more difficult. Pleasantly dancing together or singing along with tear-jerking singers in a concert hall is an alternative method for strengthening the group feeling according to that theory.


Unfortunately, hard evidence for such statements is missing. So, for the time being, Honing’s interdisciplinary research is focusing on matters that are measurable. In his research, he investigates both people and animals. During his quest, he travelled to laboratories in California, Mexico and Japan where “animal experiments” were being carried out. It might seem strange, but in view of the strict ethical requirements, these experiments mainly consist of games that the animals enjoy. These have revealed that chimpanzees – especially males – tend to swing more than rhesus monkeys, for example. However, they lack our sense of rhythm.

It is also clear animals with the ability to learn vocals are the best at sticking to the beat. They are therefore receiving extra attention in the research. This concerns not just talking parrots and cockatoos. Honing also sits with songbirds, zebra finches, hummingbirds, bats, and seals in the animal disco. And, of course, he continues to investigate human musicality. Is it actually true that “everybody is musical”, as the title of one of his other books claims? ‘No’, he admits. ‘In Canada, a research institute is working on amusia or unmusicality. After a lot of research that team has found a beat-deaf man and a woman: Matthieu and Marjorie. They cannot tell the difference between a waltz and a tango. However, it is the exception that proves the rule.’

Honing is secretly very musical, but when he was about twenty, he sold all of his instruments to dedicate himself to musicology. And he is far from finished with the subject. Last year, he started a research network with an international group of geneticists that has the ambition of mapping the “musicality genome”. Colleagues have now localised 68 genes that are associated with rhythm perception and a sense of rhythm [doi: 10.1101/836197]. ‘However, it will take us years, if not decades, to complete this job.’ In addition to this study, Honing is trying to describe the musicality of as many people as possible. For this, he developed online games like “Hooked on music” that has been played more than a million times. Players need to recognise songs as quickly as possible, and the game therefore provides insight into a musical memory. The games that are currently being developed further in the research network will help to acquire insight into our listening skills as well as the limitations of our cognitive and biological system. ‘Those are clearly present because although you can divide up a scale in an infinite number of ways, it only happens in a limited number of ways throughout the world’, says Honing. ‘And there must also be a biological explanation as to why certain tunes are easier to remember than others.’

There must also be a biological explanation as to why certain tunes are easier to remember than others
- Henkjan Honing

His dream is to link the information from fervent music game players to genetic information. That’s possible because a growing number of people are letting their genome be analysed. ‘If we succeed in doing this, then we'll have a fantastic new tool that we could possibly use to gain a better understanding of why we share the sense of rhythm with cockatoos but not with apes. And whether we possibly inherited our musicality from Neanderthals. There’s still so much to discover!’

Written by Edo Beerda

In 2018, Henkjan Honing published two books: “The Origins of Musicality” (MIT Press) and “Aap slaat maat. Op zoek naar de oorsprong van muzikaliteit bij mens en dier.” [Ape defines the rhythm. In search of the origin of musicality in people and animals] (published by Nieuw Amsterdam). Both books were supported by NWO (Horizon Grant 317-70-010)

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