Still from "A monument for a gorrila" by Bert Haanstra.
There are many misunderstandings about musicality. People who consider themselves to be unmusical, say that they have no feel for rhythm, or that they can’t sing in tune. However, most of them are quick to view birdsong, or a cockatoo that can dance in time to music, as 'musical.' But can animals really be musical? And what is musicality, actually?
In one of the documentaries that Dutch film-maker Bert Haanstra filmed in Burgers’ Dierenpark some twenty years ago, there is a sequence in which a group of lowland gorillas are playing music together, or rather, that’s what the editing suggests. First we see a shot of a gorilla drumming enthusiastically on a large barrel. Clearly, as he is looking around much as an orchestral conductor would do, he is the leader of the band. Then another gorilla comes into view, rhythmically beating its chest, followed by a third gorilla that is repeatedly gliding its fingers up and down over its lips to make a rhythmical plopping noise. It’s obvious that all three animals are thoroughly enjoying themselves. But is it really music? Are these apes really musical? The answer is ‘yes and no’.
No matter how we would like it to be different, we are repeatedly reminded that we have more similarities to animals than differences. However, we must be careful in calling a chimpanzee’s drumming on an empty barrel, music. We make this mistake more often. We, the human listeners, perceive the sounds made by creatures such as songbirds, whales or chimpanzees as music. Whether these creatures also do that, or whether they experience the same amount of pleasure in the sounds they themselves produce, is questionable. And that makes a world of difference! The essence of music and musicality lies not so much in producing it, as in listening to it.
Still from "A monument for a gorrila".
Of course, before we can assess whether an animal species is able to both make and experience music, we first need a definition of what music actually is. But then, there are quite a number of possible definitions … These range from considering music as ‘ordered sound’ to anything that ‘sounds like music’…
One thing is certain: music includes everything that we consider to be music, or rather, everything in which we hear music. Music is in the mind of the listener. We readily experience birdsong as music, but this does not mean that it is also music for the birds themselves. The same applies to humpback whales, dolphins and other animals that make sounds which we like to call music.
To avoid misunderstandings and different interpretations, it is useful, therefore, to make a strict distinction between ‘musicality’ and ‘music’. By ‘musicality’ we understand a natural, inborn quality that is an outcome of our biology. We define ‘music’, on the other hand, as a culturally determined phenomenon based on that very biology. Hence without musicality, there can be no music. With this important distinction, it is possible to talk about musicality without broaching the question of what is, or is not meant by ‘music’.
See for a longer argument the book at www.musicalcognition.com.