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Scientists in the exciting new field of “biomusic” are finding increasing evidence that both people and animals create and mimic notes, pitch and rhythm. In biomusic research, the differences and similarities between disparate sounds such as birdcalls, bonobo drumming, whalesong and mice “pitch” are investigated. Biomusic joins the trained ears of musicians with the latest scientific research and technology in biology, physics, computer science, zoology and other academic disciplines.  

Thus why the white-breasted wood wren can belt out an uncanny version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? And why Paul McCartney and Peter Gabriel have recorded songs with bonobo apes as their back-up singers? 

Human composers, from classical to modern day rockers, have been inspired for centuries by the sounds outside their windows at dawn.  

The birth of biomusic

Coined by the late Walt Rosen in 1986, the term biomusic emerged when leading international experts met at a powerhouse National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Biodiversity conference.  

“We all got excited. There were things we were finding out from each other which obviously brought out entire new questions and whole new levels of inquiry,” said Patricia Gray, Founder of the National Musical Arts Biomusic program and Artistic Director and pianist at NAS at the time of the conference. 

Moreover, because of the NAS conference, scientists began to look at musical structure across species lines, instead of limiting themselves to one animal at a time. They also brought the unique vantage point of musicians into their research.  

“One of the things that musicians bring is a very precise way of listening. For example, the way musicians listen and analyze birdsong wasn’t being considered in the larger context,” Gray said  

Wild music 

The original group formed at the NAS conference grew in strength and numbers, which eventually led to an exhibit called Wild Music. Wild Music now encompasses a 4,000 square-foot exhibition constructed with green materials featuring the latest research about “the songs and signs of life.”  

The exhibit, which travels throughout the country, encourages multicultural and intergenerational audiences to better understand just what makes music, both in cities and in the wild.  A schedule for the national tour can be found on the Web site.

Included in this diverse presentation of worldwide sound:

  • A bioacoustic lab, where you can compare the human larynx with the bird syrinx, and use an “electrolarynx” to “speak” without using your voice.
  • The Power of Sound and Music Theatre, where you can listen to sounds from around the world to see how animals use sounds to identify themselves, communicate, and nurture social groups.
  • A cross comparison of hearing ability (you might be surprised to learn where people rank!)
  • Learn how music influences our memory.
  • Many other exhibits about the “nature of music and the music of nature”

According to sound engineer and composer Philip Blackburn, the exhibit has only grown in popularity since its launch.  

“We’re watching everything going green. So green music is a natural progression,” Blackburn said.

The future of biomusic 

Recent advances in technology are going green, too. In fact, some advances in biomusic can actually be attributed to the latest microphone technology and software analysis programs.  

“Now, technology is helping us hear above and below our hearing range,” Gray said. “For the most part, human beings actually hear more slowly than other species.” 

Gray is currently working with other researchers (and the same bonobos who recorded with McCartney and Gabriel) at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa, exploring where some of our musical abilities intersect with the development of life itself—the evolutionary record.  

Unraveling assumptions about what is and what isn’t uniquely human, biomusic has the potential to foster a deeper understanding about the human relationship with sound and our ancient connection with other animals.  

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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