Born to boogie

One of the hottest debates amongst cognitive psychologists surrounds the purpose of music. 

Some argue that music is just a “pure pleasure technology” ie something consumed through our ears to stimulate our pleasure circuits. Others state music has an evolutionary value in that it aided human survival and we are therefore predisposed to appreciate it. Strangely, music seems to be unique to humans. 

Many animals produce sounds we might call “music” but these have a purely functional role such as warning or mating calls. Birdsong is different, containing as it does distinct pitch and rhythm but is essentially just random bursts of sound; whale song contains an element of hierarchy and therefore comes closest.

There are however some species that are not actually musical but clearly respond to music by being naturally able to move to a beat. Cockatoos in particular seem to possess this rhythmic sync. The superstar cockatoo of YouTube is Snowball which can adjust its dance routine to the beat of a pop song – check out his moves on this video. 

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For a mental activity that serves no clear purpose music has an extraordinarily powerful ability to prime human emotions and influence behaviour. It’s for this reason that most of us listen to music when doing the housework, when getting ready to go out for an evening or when we need cheering up. However, can music change our pattern of behaviour and persuade us to do something we consciously choose not to do? If it can, then its value is even greater still. 

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Music has never been more accessible and present in our lives. At the risk of being immediately challenged surely the 21st century apotheosis of the human connection with music must be the “wedding dance”, a latter-day ritual that originated in the USA, and often involves the entire wedding cortege in a choreographed dance routine set to a popular tune. This video might inspire you! 

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Or maybe this one which has had over 10m YouTube views 

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Despite much research no other species has been proven to engage in music as we define it. Many animals such as elephants and monkeys can create repetitive sound using percussive instruments – watch the fabulous Thai Elephant Orchestra for example - but cannot adjust their playing to a given rhythm. 

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Science can’t yet provide the answer as to the origins of music. Whatever its purpose, music as Philip Ball wrote in his book “The Music Instinct” “isn’t something that we as a species do as a choice – it is ingrained in our auditory, cognitive and motor functions.” 

Like Snowball, none of us can resist our genetic predisposition to get with the beat!

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