music for monkeys by Himi Kozue

Zoomusicology [zoh-uh-myoo-zi-kol-uh-jee] is a field of musicology and zoology or more specifically, zoosemiotics (animal communication). It is the study of the music of non-human animals, or rather the musical aspects of sound or communication produced and received by animals, and is related to ethnomusicology (the study of human music). Italian musicologist and semiotician Dario Martinelli describes the subject of as the ‘aesthetic use of sound communication among animals.’

Musicologist Marcello Sorce Keller attributes musical qualities to animal sounds, specifically whales’ and birds’ songs, by stating that regional variations can be found that resemble cultural traits in human music. He advocates for a combined study of zoomusicology and ethnomusicology with the remark that he ‘would like to suggest that musical scholarship excluding non-human animals cannot ultimately describe ‘how musical is man.”

French composer of contemporary music François-Bernard Mâche’s ‘Musique, mythe, nature, ou les Dauphins d’Arion’ (‘Music, Myth and Nature, or The Dolphins of Arion,’ 1983), includes a study of ‘ornitho-musicology’ using a technique of linguist and musical analyst Nicolas Ruwet’s ‘Langage, musique, poésie’ (‘Language, music, poetry’ 1972), paradigmatic segmentation analysis. Ruwet argued that the most striking characteristic of musical syntax was repetition (and, by extension, varied repetition or transformation) and that even bird songs are organized according to a repetition-transformation principle. Mâche’s said one purpose of his book was to ‘begin to speak of animal musics other than with the quotation marks,’ and he is credited by Dario Martinelli with the creation of zoomusicology.

In the opinion of Canadian musicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez, ‘in the last analysis, it is a human being who decides what is and is not musical, even when the sound is not of human origin. If we acknowledge that sound is not organized and conceptualized (that is, made to form music) merely by its producer, but by the mind that perceives it, then music is uniquely human.’ According to Mâche, ‘If it turns out that music is a widespread phenomenon in several living species apart from man, this will very much call into question the definition of music, and more widely that of man and his culture, as well as the idea we have of the animal itself.’

As a test of his theory of the emotional origins of music, cellist David Teie created species-specific music and tested it on cotton-top tamarin monkeys at the University of Wisconsin. The results of the study, led by zoologist Charles T. Snowdon, indicate that the species-specific piece written by Teie was the first music that was shown to be effective for any species other than human in a controlled study. Japanese composer Shinji Kanki writes music for dolphins according to conventions found in dolphin music or found to please dolphins in his ‘Music for Dolphins (Ultrasonic Improvisational Composition) for underwater ultrasonic loudspeakers’ (2001).

Composers have evoked or imitated animal sounds in compositions including Jean-Philippe Rameau’s ‘The Hen’ (1728), Camille Saint-Saëns’s ‘Carnival of the Animals’ (1886), Messiaen’s ‘Catalogue of the Birds’ (1956–58) and Pauline Oliveros’s ‘El Relicario de los Animales’ (1977). Other examples include Alan Hovhaness’s ‘And God Created Great Whales’ (1970), George Crumb’s ‘Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale)’ (1971), and Gabriel Pareyon’s ‘Invention over the song of the Vireo atriccapillus’ (1999) and ‘Kha Pijpichtli Kuikatl’ (2003). A. J. Mithra, India’s only known zoomusicologist has composed music using natural birds, animals and frog sounds since 2008.

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