Hootin’ and Howlin’: How Animal Sounds Differ from Other Sounds in Nature
1.2.2 Hootin’ and Howlin’: Instinctive vs Learned
Human Soundmaking: Discrete Pitches (No More Hootin’ and Howlin’)
Human Soundmaking: Entrainment (That’s En-train-ment,
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In nature, when you listen to the wind in the trees or water rushing
in a stream, what do you hear? Random and diffuse background
sound. Like traffic in the city. A wide range of frequencies all mixed
together. (Frequency just means number of vibrations per second.
A given frequency number corresponds to a particular tone or note,
such as A-440, the A above Middle C. More on this in Chapter 3.)
Animals evolved ways of signalling each other using calls that
focus on narrow bands of frequencies. Energy concentrated in this way
results in sounds that carry long distances. You can hear the hootin’ and howlin’
easily against the random background sound.
Species also evolve sounds specific to their own kind, so that
they can identify each other. In a tropical rainforest, for example, a
small area of, say, one square kilometre may contain scores of
different bird species. Each species has evolved a signature sound,
a distinctive song or repertoire of songs. (More on developing a
signature sound in Chapter 11.)
Studying vocalizations of non-human animals provides some clues
about how music originated in humans. For instance, some animals
use vocalizations to signal alarm, some to signal discovery of a food
birds with complex songs learn their songs from each other. But they don’t learn
just any old tunes—they learn species-specific songs only. And, once learned,
their songs change little. The fact that they learn songs at all, though, makes
birds musically akin to humans, whales, and dolphins. (But that does not mean
humans became musical by imitating birds!)
Oddly, some of our closest primate relatives, monkeys and
chimpanzees, do not learn their vocalizations from each other. They’re
born with an instinctive and limited repertoire of grunts and calls. Chimpanzees
have about 30 calls. Even the charming vocal duetting of gibbons is not learned;
calls and songs normally communicate an emotional state. So it’s possible that
the musical vocalizations that humans evolved did not co-evolve with language,
since language communicates mostly information. Human music may have predated
human language, but it’s highly unlikely that language evolved before music.
Non-human primate vocalization takes the form of
unpitched grunts and calls, rather than discrete pitches. Your human brain does
not respond happily to continuously sliding hootin’ and howlin’ when presented
in musical or speech contexts. It gets confused.
Unlike all other animals, humans evolved a vocal communication
system that uses mainly discrete pitches. You can hear it in both speech
and music. That’s why the melodies of songs found in all musical traditions
follow scales, groups of discrete pitches (the
subject of Chapter 4).
Humans entrain to isometric beats.
• To entrain
(from the same root as “train,” referring to being dragged or carried along)
means to join in and synchronize to a rhythmic source outside the body—to
play, clap, tap, sing along. Or, as a musician would put it, to lock in with the
• Isometric refers to steady, evenly-spaced regular beats.
The ability to entrain rhythmically to an external
beat—vital in both music and dance—has evolved only in humans. No other animal
can do it. Selective pressure for teamwork and group coordination may have
triggered the evolution of the rhythmic entrainment function in humans.
pressure refers to the environmental demands—including conditions in the social
environment—that favour the Darwinian evolution of physical and mental traits
over a long period of time. In short, selective pressure drives Darwinian
evolution. For example, selective pressure for group bonding may
have driven, among many other social behaviours, the evolution of
the human ability to harmonize, or blend discrete pitches—a skill unique
innate ability to entrain means people can participate in a musical performance
without knowing how to play a musical instrument—clapping along, nodding to the
beat, and, of course, dancing. A few animals can chorus in synchrony, such as
frogs and crickets. But only humans can vary the tempo (number of beats per
minute) from slow to several times faster, without losing the sense of
humans have the ability to play musical instruments. Non-human primates cannot
keep a steady beat or learn new melodic sequencing. That’s why they’re incapable
of playing the most basic of instruments, and cannot be trained to learn even
the simplest human music (although they can learn simple human language).
Every human culture ever known has had music. We humans
take for granted our effortless discrete-pitch vocalizing and isometric
time-keeping skills. Non-human animals have no such abilities, and
consequently no true appreciation of bluegrass, ABBA, or hip-hop.
Except for certain breeds of dogs who join in when they hear
particular songs from musical theatre and R & B.
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