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Bonobos' Ability To Play Drums With Human Drummer Sheds Light On Speech and Music Evolution

Nov 25, 2015 06:32 PM EST

When you hear the beat of a drum, do you start to tap your foot to the rhythm? Humans have a remarkable ability to synchronize to acoustic signals, which scientists believe underlies social coordination and may even be a precursor for speech. Since chimpanzees and bonobos are genetically similar to humans, researchers from the American Psychological Association were interested to see how the animals would respond to rhythmic stimuli. 

Bonobos are closely related to chimpanzees and actually have 98.5 percent of the same DNA as humans -- they even possess very human-like qualities. For instance, previous studies have found bonobos are incredibly intelligent, have a deep emotional capacity, and can pick up on human actions simply through observation. In the recent study, researchers Edward Large and Patricia Gray observed spontaneous and synchronized drumming tempo in a female bonobo named Kuni, who willingly approached a human drummer within a zoo enclosure. While the bonobos, including Kuni, were exposed to a human drummer prior to their experiment and rewarded for striking or pounding on the drum, the animals were not trained to produce a certain rhythm or synchronize with the human drummer, according to a news release. 

So what did researchers find? First, the human drummer and Kuni took turns spontaneously playing to their own beat. This means the human would drum at a specified tempo, which was interpreted from a metronome played through headphones. When Kuni started drumming, the experimenter would stop. This revealed that Kuni's spontaneous drumming matched the human drummer's tempo 64 percent of the time. 

In the next experiment, the human drummer continued to play when Kuni joined in playing, in order to test whether or not she could synchronize with the experimenter. Overall, researchers found Kuni could match the human's beat 54 percent of time, though she was more likely to synchronize when the experimenter-set tempo was similar to her preferred tempo of 270 beats per minute. 

Nonetheless, Kuni exhibited tempo flexibility, which suggests bonobos do exhibit rhythmic capabilities. Their study, recently published in the Journal of Comparative Psychologyhas direct implications for understanding the evolution of speech and music.

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