A philosopher once wrote a book in which he asked the question, “What is music?” He described a group of acolytes who had stayed up all night debating and biting their nails over that koan. We know that we’re related to primates but as far as scientists can tell, monkeys have no interest in music. They prefer silence.

A new report by psychologist Charles Snowdon shows that a monkey called the cotton-top tamarin DOES respond to music. The catch? These South American monkeys are essentially immune to human music, but they respond appropriately to “monkey music,” 30-second clips composed on the basis of actual monkey calls. The music was inspired by sounds the tamarins make to convey two opposite emotions: threats and/or fear, and affiliation, a friendly, safe and happy condition.

The similarities in communications between monkeys and people suggest deep evolutionary roots for the musical elements of speech. Snowdon says, “The emotional components of music and animal calls might be very similar, and from an evolutionary perspective, we are finding that the note patterns, dissonance and timing are important for communicating affective states in both animals and people.” In other words, humans hum when they’re happy and in a sense these monkeys do too.

If you’re not happy with the music in the timeline you’re in, just move to another one! In October, we’ll show you how.

Art credit: Dreamstime.com

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