Music Cognition

Dr. Ani Patel and Dr. John Iversen

One of the true universals of human music is the tendency to move to a musical beat. Moving to a musical beat bonds people together (e.g., in social dancing) and improves walking for patients with certain neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. Modern neuroscience is striving to understand how our brain perceives beat and coordinates actions with it, and why we have this ability in the first place.

Until recently it seemed that there were no other species besides humans that moved to the beat of music, which limited the application of comparative biological tools to study this topic. This all changed when we teamed up with Irena & Chuck Schulz of Bird Lovers Only to study Snowball’s movement to music. Together, we discovered that Snowball® truly does sense a beat in real music and can synchronize his movements to it.

Not only did Snowball® dance in synchrony with his favorite song, but when we slowed down or sped up the music his dancing tempo changed to match the music. This report of the first non-human animal that could dance to the beat made a big splash, and has opened the way to studying musical beat perception and synchronization in other species, a topic now being studied in other laboratories.

Ultimately, our comparative studies with Snowball® will help teach us how and why the human brain developed a great sensitivity to musical rhythm. It will also teach us why we share this sensitivity with parrots but not with our closest genetic cousins (monkeys and apes), who don’t seem to move to the beat of music. Finally, we hope that what we learn will help us understand how best to use musical rhythm to help those with neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease.

- Ani Patel & John Iversen, The Neurosciences Institute

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Patel, A.D., Iversen, J.R. Bregman, M.R. & Schulz, I. (2009). Experimental evidence for synchronization to a musical beat in a nonhuman animal. Current Biology, 19, 827-830.

Patel, A.D., Iversen, J.R. Bregman, M.R. & Schulz, I. (2008). Avian and human movement to music: Two further parallels. Communicative and Integrative Biology, 2(6):1-4.

Patel, A.D., Iversen, J.R. Bregman, M.R. & Schulz, I. (2009). Studying synchronization to a musical beat in nonhuman animals. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1169: 459-469.