Music Matters

Exploring music and the mind.

Snowball, the dancing cockatoo: is he listening or imitating?

Is he imitating or really listening?

The video that showed ‘Snowball’ on YouTube, around 2007, was quite a shock to me. That is to say: I thought of it as the first example of a nonhuman animal that had ‘beat induction’: the cognitive skill to synchronize or dance to the music.

Beat induction is a skill that none of our nearest relatives posses! Neither chimpanzees or bonobo’s can synchronize to the beat of the music.

However, Snowball - the Cockatoo- seems to be an exception. He could dance to the beat of Everybody of the Backstreet Boys like a grown-up human would do.

In the year that followed, Snowball became quite a celebrity. He appeared in the David Letterman Show and - together with its owner Irena Schultz - travelled all over the U.S., presenting its ‘skills’ at events like the World Science Festival (see link below).

For us, scientists in music cognition, the challenge still is to figure out: is Snowball really listening and picking up the beat, or is he imitating its owner?

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Look at the video below to decide for yourself:

  Is beat induction special? (Part 6)

Ani Patel, a neuroscientist that studied Snowball at an early stage, is still working on trying to understand to what Snowball is actually responding..

Henkjan Honing, Ph.D., is Professor in Music Cognition at the University of Amsterdam.

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