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Music to Soothe the Savage Simian

While preferring silence to Japanese taiko music, chimpanzees apparently like to listen to the different rhythms of music from Africa and India, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.

The short-term study exposed 16 chimps at Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University to bouts of African, Indian, and Japanese music. When African akan and Indian raga music was played near their outdoor enclosures, the chimps spent significantly more time in areas where they could best hear the music. The Japanese music had the opposite reaction: the chimps typically moved away from the sound.

“Chimpanzees may perceive the strong, predictable rhythmic patterns as threatening,” said Frans de Waal, Ph.D., author of must-read primatology texts including Peacemaking among Primates and Chimpanzee Politics, and co-author of the study. The predictable rhythmic patters may sound too much like the stomping and banging that chimps often use in dominance displays.

This study brought to mind this video of chimpanzees at Chimp Haven, a Louisiana-based ape sanctuary, reacting to the beat of visiting drummers. “Much to our surprise, males and females responded differently to the drumming,” a Chimp Haven rep writes. “Many of the males would display while the music was playing but stop when the music stopped.”

Primates in earlier studies usually preferred silence to music from the West. Take that, Arctic Monkeys. But the goal was not to show a cultural preference in chimps’ musical tastes. The investigators feared that the chimps’ prior exposure to Western music might create a bias in this study. And they wanted to pinpoint specific acoustic properties of the different types of music tested. The African and Indian music used in the experiment had extreme ratios of strong to weak beats, whereas the (perceived to be threatening) Japanese music had regular strong beats.

Back to Chimp Haven, where the staff regularly invite musicians to play for their chimpanzees as a form of environmental enrichment. Whereas the drums tend to bring out the beast in the male chimps, classical violin makes them “calm and relaxed.”

On a related note, I wonder, do bonobos suffer from Bieber fever?

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