Do animals perceive music like we do?

Written by Jenna Dreisenstock

Do non-human animals perceive and enjoy music the same way we do, or is it humanity’s own egocentric self-projection?

In its complexity, diving into the realm of human perception and the understanding of ourselves as human beings is twisting, turning rabbit hole of unanswered questions – and answers that lead to even more questions. Yet from our perspective, surely there questions so simple, like a kind of universal understanding within us – that allows us to give quick, precise answers as they seem so blatantly obvious the question may be perceived as ridiculous. However, I would like to ask – why do we enjoy music? Well – it makes us feel good, right? Or rather let’s say, it makes us feel – something. To feel something can be to feel everything; the brightest and most vivid of joy, the darkest depths of melancholia: bleeding polaroids of sun-drenched nostalgia, an outlet for our anger: collections of sounds which connect us all in a universal language.

However, is it really that simple? Are the reasons that we enjoy music floating delicately on the surface as such, without the need to delve deeper? The proof of the physiological effects of music on the human brain have been cleared, lighting up parts of us like strobe lights as we listen; perceiving music subconsciously as art and language. Yet, if this is our human experience of music – inherently, it exists both as something intangible, but something still physically present and awake within us. However it’s often, in our ego forgotten that we too, as humans beings, are part of the animal kingdom. So that leads us to the question – do non-human animals enjoy music as much as we do?

Non-human animals exist in their own beautiful sentience, and along with such are able to communicate with one another, form relationships and loving bonds: treasure their environments, their communities and peers. Considering our human attraction to music seems to come with our inherent being, a programmed ‘human nature’ if you will – it’s then fair to assume that non-human animals would too, enjoy music in similar ways. We hear birds chirping lullabies to one another; the bellowing ‘love songs’ of whales. These sounds, engulfing in their intrigue lead us to hear them as music. Music being defined as notes organized in a specific way: pleasing to us, intriguing to us. Yet, to understand if animals perceive music the same ways in which humans do is a difficult subject to tackle as it needs to be broken down to its core. It has been said that bird and whale songs tend to have similar structures to what we associate with a typical song: for example, undoubtedly the most typical song structure in modern music we recognise as –

  • intro
  • verse
  • chorus
  • verse
  • chorus
  • outro

In that regard, it makes sense why we find these non-human animals ‘songs’ appealing, yet how do we know the notes strung together by the chirping birds are even songs? Is it that these specific structures of sounds that non-human animals, like us, are inherently drawn to? Humans have an incredible knack for being able to find patterns in places which there are none – does this mean that whale songs aren’t actually songs at all, but rather other forms of communication we humans do not understand yet have come to associate with music? Is it our own understanding of what music is, that could lead us to a conclusion that yes – indeed, animals enjoy and create music as it’s built into all of earth’s sentience? Or – does the human race remain ever ego-centric, to believe that what we have defined as music is something that would be enjoyed by non-human animals alike?

To further perplex in this rabbit hole of philosophical eccentricism – is it our horrendous human ego that draws the line between what is defined as music, and what is defined as random noise? Perhaps to non-human animals the prospect of our music could be disorganized, nonsensical sounds; unappealing, boring, background noise: whereas to us, the seemingly random auditory communication between non-human animals is their music. Perhaps those are the sounds they hold dear, while we brush them off – and we only acknowledge the ways in which non-human animals speak, create and sing when it appeals to us? It’s difficult for me to conclude this article with a definitive answer as to whether animals enjoy music as much as we do – to even begin to tackle the subject, we’d have to revel in a collective existential crises where we ask ourselves – what makes music, music?

Where do we draw the line, and is the line ours to draw across all peoples and species? Is it fair to project our perspectives onto other species in a way to understand ourselves, or does this connectedness of how we perceive sound quite literally universal and built within all of us, human and non-human alike? Basically, in order to answer this, I’d have to have to ask you what the hell music even is – but I think that will have to wait.

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