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August 22, 2007 6:38 AM   Subscribe

Zoomusicology, a subfield of Zoosemiotics.
posted by Miko (23 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Related: My old buddy Dave Soldier (along with conservationist Richard Lair) has been working regularly for several years with elephants in Thailand who make music. And they make some pretty damn good music, too! Here's Dave's page on the Thai Elephant Orchestra. Lots of links there to articles, videos and such.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:59 AM on August 22, 2007

Tokens reference.
posted by carsonb at 7:03 AM on August 22, 2007

Message to Mr. Martinelli: White text on black background plus small font size is bad. I want to read these articles, but this is just too hard on my eyes.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:07 AM on August 22, 2007

flapjax: FireFox for winxp lets me increase text size by going ctrl +. Then to restore settings ctrl 0. Presumably FF for macs has a similar functionality.
posted by carsonb at 7:12 AM on August 22, 2007

Their definition of zoomusicology is primarily 'the aesthetic use of sound communication among animals."

I've had this argument before, but what does one bird singing "get the fuck out of my territory" have to do with music, even though it may sound like music to human ears?

Anthromorphosizing in a different way appears on such (wonderful) CDs as the "Thai Elephant Orchestra," in which elephants are given indigenous instruments - elephant-sized - primarily wooden xylophones on which to play. Similar to giving an ape or an elephant a paintbrush and a pallette.
posted by kozad at 7:36 AM on August 22, 2007

Thanks, carsonb. Rather embarrassing for me that I didn't know that: something so basic! But I'm glad I spoke up, so that someone like yourself would be nice and helpful enough to educate a quasi-Luddite like me!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:42 AM on August 22, 2007

i think that it is no matter what the bird might be singing ABOUT....it's still music. we have human folk tunes (traditional music, "of the people" that might represent the history and culture going on among the people) anywhere from 1,000 years ago to rap songs today that cover the same territorial issues (no matter how complex or mundane). just because we can understand our language and not theirs' doesn't mean that it doesn't qualify as music. one might call it avian folk music, eh?
posted by moonbizcut at 7:47 AM on August 22, 2007

avian folk music

That'll be an iTunes "genre" before you know it!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:52 AM on August 22, 2007

Humans take pleasure in singing and creating musical sound. It pleases us. I see no reason to assume that there are no other creatures on the planet who would also derive pleasure from vocalizing. And moonbizcut's point is a good one: just because much (though not necessarily all) of any animal's vocalizing is communication, that doesn't preclude that it might be music as well. As pointed out, music is communication, after all.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:58 AM on August 22, 2007

The argument I have with the idea that birds are creating music is that music for humans is so different. We have an aesthetic/emotional experience from the creation of sound whose actual communicative value is really open to debate. We communicate primarily through verbal language and "body language," whereas music has a different social function in human society.

You might be right that birds get some sort of aesthetic pleasure from singing or hearing others sing, but I kind of doubt it, seeing the creation of beauty through art as something that has taken a long time and big brains to come up with. Call me speciest. (Now, cetaceans might present a more compelling argument for animal communication being congruent with musical expression, to my mind.)
posted by kozad at 9:33 AM on August 22, 2007

birds' singing doesn't need to be music or mean something from an analytical standpoint to THEM in order to be music. the only thing required of music is to have material that is repeated into patterns and thus gives material or themes to draw from. birds use patterns or themes to communicate specific general ideas. those same patterns of ideas or intent of their call follows musical pitch patterns. Oliver Messiaen, French composer, transcribed (notated) thousands of bird calls with meticulous care in the 1960s. guess what?! there were consistent patterns! their communication system is just much more pitch-oriented (frequency levels) then our own and thus more musical. i only know this because i'm a music student with strange interests. but there is a VERY intense musical nature to birds' communication system.
posted by moonbizcut at 10:22 AM on August 22, 2007

Good points, moonbizcut, and Messiaen's "bird music" is pretty beautiful stuff, but I can't buy your definition of music. If "the only thing required of music is to have material that is reated into patterns and thus gives material or themes to draw from," a tree is music. A quartz crystal is music. And if you meant to include sound in your definition, it's pretty easy to call any patterned sound music, including thunder, avalanches, the sound of a galloping horse, the breeze in the trees, etc. And of course Cage eschewed patterns and themes and still made music.

I still think music is a cultural artifact, not strictly an acoustical phenenomenon.

BTW, I remember reading a study earlier noting (hah) that human speech generally corresponds to the notes in a diatonic scale.
posted by kozad at 12:38 PM on August 22, 2007

I was just reading an interesting series of articles about music in prehistoric/primitive cultures. The bulk of the music in those cultures was/is communicative rather than for art or entertainment: songs are very specific in function, serving as integrated elements of worship, healing practices, social rituals like weddings, and in some cases the only means of setting down a group's history. Until city-states formed, songs were in fact so much a part of daily life that music was not even a separate art, but was generally not distinguished from poetry, chant, and dance. Music was so purely functional in some of the examples that it would be very hard to separate it from the territorial songs of birds or the pod-tracking songs of whales. Even today, there is plenty of functional music in evidence in the form of work songs, hymns, jumprope chants and marching beats, among other examples.

it's pretty easy to call any patterned sound music,

And it is music, as the common poetical use of "the music of the trees," "the music of the babbling brook" indicates. The difference, then, between human music and that of inanimate objects is the degree to which it is intentional. With animals and humans, speculating about the degree of intent gets dicey. We might like to think humans always and only produce music for art's sake; but history seems to indicate differently, as does the wailing of a bereaved mother, as does the call-and-response of a work song. If there is ever an element of choice in whether an animal sings or doesn't, chooses to make patterned sound or doesn't, then it could be considered music just as easily as human music. To discuss that opens into the boggy territory of how much human vs. animal behavior is pre-programmed or 'instinctual.'

Personally, I think the urge to make music in humans is somewhat built-in, since music appears in all cultures and in all times without exception. Therefore, as I see it, musical behavior must have been derived from antecedents in the animal world. So it wouldn't be so far-fetched to look at sound-producing behavior in the animal world to see what can be seen of musical behavior or proto-musical behavior.

That's not to say I'm sure about these folks' scholarship, or any such thing. But it's an interesting thing to think about.
posted by Miko at 1:08 PM on August 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

Check out Jim Nollman, Playing Music with Animals. The link I just gave you has mp3s of tracks such as "Cello and Wolf Pack #1" and "Orca Heavy Metal." If you can, see if you can track down the whole album. He does some interesting music accompanied by turkeys.
posted by jonp72 at 4:25 PM on August 22, 2007

I like Animal Collective. That is all.
posted by everichon at 4:32 PM on August 22, 2007

He does some interesting music accompanied by turkeys.

There's been a couple of times over the years that I too have done music accompanied by turkeys. As to whether it was interesting, or not... well, I've always tried...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:31 PM on August 22, 2007

Thanks Miko. You have put into words a lot of things I feel about music's role in our socio-biological-psychological-(and even, I admit, our linguistic/communicative) history. I have purposely avoided the word entertainment in this conversation, as that complicates our debate enormously.

Look at the importance of music to teens. Jeebus. That would entail a set of twenty links to start the debate!

Maybe someone else who is writing their doctorate on this subject?

In the meantime, whistle while you work, sing in the shower, and argue about where to tune the radio at work.

Good night. As the Beatles put it. Not for the first time.
posted by kozad at 9:16 PM on August 22, 2007

Miko, as an ethnomusicologist, let me advise you that you are reading only one side of the story. The argument that "music" is somehow more "functional" than "aesthetic" in "primitive" (living) human cultures (we know almost nothing about prehistoric cultures that is not 90 percent speculation and 10 percent bullshit) has long been challenged and rejected by many of us.

Franz Boas once wrote that no matter how poor or primitive a society may be, all societies make art -- for art's sake. Try reading *Primitive Art* and get back to me about "functional" music. Oh, and listen to some recordings of African or New Guinea polyphony and tell me it isn't art.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:53 PM on August 22, 2007

we know almost nothing about prehistoric cultures that is not 90 percent speculation and 10 percent bullshit

I should clarify for posterity that by this I mean the music of prehistoric cultures. We know plenty about their visual arts and subsistence practices, etc. But evanescent music has not stayed behind for the archaeologists to hear, and the material archive favors specific musical technologies (bone or stone or metal instruments especially) in a way that clearly biases the speculation toward comparisons with modern drumming cultures, and surely underestimates the salience of the human voice -- song -- in the evolution of culture globally. What we do know of the singing prehistoric man we share with linguistics, and it too is pretty shaky, having mostly to do with cranial capacities and their purported relationship to intelligence, the shape of the vocal tract changing over time with changes in posture, and the odd and amazing acoustics of certain prehistoric dwellings. In other words, we can be sure on a gut level our ancestors were doing something "musical" to the modern sensibility, possibly of a piece with something "verbal" to the modern sensibility, when language as we know it today was still getting sorted out as a separate faculty (some of us, myself included, don't think it is, actually) from song. Beyond that, nothing but interesting hypotheses have emerged and none have been truly testable.

That is the essence of music: its central role entraining us in time and place, its evanescence itself, oddly matched by an unparalleled relationship to the act of remembering the past. The mere distinction between "functional" and "aesthetic" purposes for art -- music most of all - is itself an artifact of a distinctly modern mindset that quarantines intellection from affect, mind from dancing body, and the inscribed word from an act of communicating in the moment. "Music," as Claude Levi-Strauss famously said, "is the supreme mystery of the sciences of man." and despite 40 years since The Raw and the Cooked and Blacking's How Musical Is Man?, we still can't answer Blacking's question with data. Because it may not exist. And there's nothing we can do about it but reason by analogy.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:07 PM on August 23, 2007

I'm not ignorant in the area of ethnomusicology, myself, fourcheesemac, and I don't see many areas of disagreement. You comments about the modern mindset are exactly what I was getting at with my ruminations on 'intention.'
posted by Miko at 9:42 PM on August 23, 2007

Right on Miko -- didn't mean at all to sound patronizing. My sensibilities in this regard come from doing battle with cognitive/evolutionary psychologists who like to draw selectively on the ethnomusicological literature on "primitive" musics, and to speculate wildly about the analogy between the musics of living small scale hunter-gatherer societies and the "musics" of distant evolutionary ancestors, in service of an attitude that both diminishes the importance of music (or its semiotic or expressive grandeur in relation to referential language) . . . as part of a general "controlling" for "culture" as an independent variable vis a vis musical cognition. Somewhere in the middle of the standard issue talk (I'll spare you my takedown of their bullshit experimental protocols, and the names I have in mind) the "primitive cultures' "musics" are more "functional" (or less "purely aesthetic") than modern/developed cultures' musics. Of course, the obvious rejoinder is that the "aesthetic" framing of music serves a specific cultural "function" in modern culture, conjoined as it is to rituals that bracket enlightened musical experience from the way the common rabble experience music. But it is equally important to point out that the best ethnographic studies we have of modern small-scale, low-technology cultures -- Feld's work in New Guinea, Seeger's in Amazonian Brazil, Turnbull's work with Mbaka people, McAllester's with Navajo (not a small-scale society, obviously, but he studies its most "traditional" curing ceremonies in the late 1950s), and several others, show us that the "aesthetic" response we think distinguishes the modern/western mind is but one species of the baseline human experience of musical form and expression. We don't think of *language* in these terms -- we don't presume that oral cultures don't have "literary" language and use language, unlike us, only for brute reference, or that the two functions are anything but complementary -- and as Roman Jakobson showed, only a subset of a more complete parsing of the "functions" of language (for Jakobson, the aesthetic was inseparable from the referential).

Finally, I think I messed up the Lévi-Strauss quote -- it's "science of man" not "sciences," if I'm not mistaken in retrospect. If only I had set that text to music and learned it as a song, I'd remember it better. And that leads us on to parallelism and redundancy and many other subjects for another day.

Rock on.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:54 AM on August 24, 2007

Except to add what I meant to make a central point: also, somewhere in the middle of that talk by a standard-issue evolutionary psych researching music will come the gee-whiz analogies between human music (mind you, in its "primitive" forms only) and . . . animal soung signaling and communication systems . . .the comparison of Sammi Yoiks to whale songs, for example, as "functional" ways of identifying individuals throughout their lives. It's a relic of a racist attitude that considers "primitive" people -- and their very modern descendants, like the Sammi people of today -- as somehow closer to elemental "nature" than modern man. It's delusional and self-congratulatory, at best.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:57 AM on August 24, 2007

Excellent. I am in complete agreement, especially about this:

the "aesthetic" response we think distinguishes the modern/western mind is but one species of the baseline human experience of musical form and expression

I'm not a semiotician or a zoologist, but I came across the links, found them an interesting indication of some ongoing study I'd never thought about, and slapped 'em up there for folks to look at it. My ruminations on the topic are without doubt babyish, but knowing what I know about the function of music in societies I wanted to take exception to the idea that there are 'higher' and 'lower' musical functions, and that higher are to be exclusively found in humans, while lower exclusively found in the animal world and/or in primitive human cultures. That didn't sit well.

And I haven't engaged in much debate with EP/cog. psych folks about what they're extrapolating from music in preindustrial societies. Though it sounds like you have a lot of interesting things to say about it - I hope you will post more often in music threads.
posted by Miko at 12:39 PM on August 24, 2007

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