Music for Monkeys

Italicized text has been excerpted from npr.org:

Music has great power to alter our emotions — making us happy or sad, agitated or calm. Psychologists have tried in vain to figure out why that happens. Now, a composer says he's has a clue. And he got it by writing music not for humans, but for monkeys.

David Teie plays cello with the National Symphony Orchestra, and has been developing a theory to explain why music plays on human emotions. His theory is that music relates to the most primitive sounds we make and respond to, like laughter, heartbeats, or a mother's cooing. "When I thought I had all the pieces put into place, I figured any good theory is testable, so one of the ways to test it would be to see if I could write music that would be affective for species other than human," he says.

He wrote to Chuck Snowdon, a psychology professor who managed a colony of monkeys called cotton-top tamarins at the University of Wisconsin. Snowdon was happy to cooperate and sent Teie recordings he'd made in the lab. One recording was of a monkey that felt threatened by a veterinarian. "He's very upset," Snowdon explains. "He's coming out to the front of the cage to attack or to show aggressiveness." He also sent a screechy sound that, believe it or not, monkeys make when they're feeling mellow.

With those samples and a few others as a starting point, Teie composed music for monkeys. "Basically I took those elements and patterned them the way we do normally with music," he says. "You repeat them, take them up a [musical] third — you know, using the same kind of compositional techniques we use in human music."

He played the compositions on his cello and then electronically boosted them up three octaves, to a pitch that matched the monkeys' voices. Monkeys don't respond at all to music written for humans, but they did respond when they heard this composition.

Snowdon says people may not be calmed by this relatively fast tempo of one of the pieces, but the monkeys in his lab certainly were. "This is a rhythm that approaches the resting heart rate of a tamarin and had this calming effect on them even though the pum-pum-pum in the background was maybe a bit faster than we would expect as humans for this music."

Compare that with the music Teie wrote to try and agitate the monkeys:

"Monkeys reacted to this by increasing their movement," Snowdon says. "They moved faster through their environment. And they also showed increase in a whole variety of behaviors we have associated with anxiety."

Being that there are very few commercial opportunites for monkey music, and possibly taking a cue from Raymond Scott's Soothing Sounds for Baby and all those 70's Music for Plants records, Teie has already started a website and company that makes music for cats. Listen to samples HERE.

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