Study: Monkeys Can't Pick Up Musical Beats

The ability to rock it to the rhythm of the beat appears to be innately -- and uniquely -- human.

Mike Blake/Reuters

PROBLEM: You know how humans are always insisting on clapping along at concerts? Beat induction -- being able to pick up a song's basic units of time -- is integral to our appreciation of music, allowing us to nod, dance, and -- if we must insist upon it -- clap without looking entirely ridiculous being off-rhythm. Even newborn babies are able to follow along to music in this way. And even though it's invariably awkward, it might actually, from an interspecies perspective, be pretty impressive.

METHODOLOGY: Researchers at the University of Amsterdam and the National Autonomous University of Mexico took methodology used to study beat detection in infants and adapted it for rhesus monkeys. Their two subjects, Aji and Yko, were hooked up to electrodes that measured their brain signals while they listened to rhythms played on a drum. This was a more scientific way of doing it than just seeing whether they nodded along: They would omit the downbeat from strictly metrical music and see if Aji and Yko's monkey brains registered the syncopation. 

Aside from the dubious ethics of making monkeys listen to excessive drumming, the researchers did everything possible to ensure their subjects' comfort, right down to arranging it so that "the animals were seated comfortably in a monkey chair where they could freely move their hands and feet."

RESULTS: Aji and Yko were able to detect the music's basic rhythm. But omitted beats, which to humans would sound "as if the rhythm was broken, stumbled, or became strongly syncopated for a moment," went unnoticed by their monkey brains.

CONCLUSION: After comparing the monkeys' brain signal patterns to those of humans, the researchers concluded that "rhesus monkeys, contrary to what has been shown for human adults and newborns, show no sign of representing the beat in music."

IMPLICATIONS: It would seem that beat induction is a uniquely human, cognitive skill, write the authors (although it is also present in a select group of birds). That it appears to be present from birth further indicates that it's an innate skill, meaning there's little chance that it can be learned. Monkeys, alas, will never know the goofy joy of clapping along to their favorite song with a stadium full of music fans.

It also means, I guess, that humans can't help but pick up the beat. In my own complementary experiment, I listened to Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" on loop while writing this. Even thought I was concentrating really hard on what I was doing, and not on the song, the people who sit around me can confirm that I was automatically -- and with great delight -- bopping along in my desk chair the entire time. 

The full study, "Rhesus Monkeys (Macaca mulatta) Detect Rhythmic Groups in Music, but Not the Beat," is published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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