Researchers Discover Common Patterns in Music May Lie in an Unlikely Trait Shared Between Humans and Song Birds

Released: 28-Sep-2011 2:15 PM EDT
Source Newsroom: Ryerson University
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Citations Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences (Aug/Sept, 2011)

Newswise — Whether you’re listening to Puccini’s Madam Butterfly or pop star sensation Adele’s latest hit single, studies have shown there are certain musical patterns that are common not only to various genres, but also across cultures. However, researchers have recently discovered that these common traits may come from constraints to the way people sing, and have determined this discovery from an unlikely source: song birds.

“We were intrigued by certain widespread features of human song melody across different cultures and genres of music, whether it was Italian opera or music from northern India,” says Frank Russo, director of Ryerson’s SMART (Science of Music, Auditory Research and Technology) laboratory. “We wanted to test the idea to see if this was due to the mechanics of how we produce sound.”

Russo is a co-author of a study that examined the origins of human and avian song structure published in the current issue of the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences. Adam Tierney, a post-doctoral fellow at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, is the study’s lead author and Aniruddh Patel, senior fellow in theoretical neurobiology at The Neurosciences Institute at San Diego, California, is the study’s other co-author.

Previous studies by musicologists have shown there are various common patterns found in a wide array of different types of music. For example, many melodic phrases tend to rise before they descend, forming a melodic arch in the musical score. People from different cultures also tend to lengthen the final note of each musical phrase.

To understand whether these common musical traits were produced by certain vocal constraints, the researchers identified song birds as another species that produced songs in a similar fashion to people.

Tierney, Russo and Patel examined a database of over 9,400 folk songs from 32 geographic locations worldwide for common musical patterns such as melodic arches and lengthening the final note after each musical phrase. The researchers then compiled sample recordings of birdsongs from 54 songbird families, to examine similar vocal patterns that appeared in humans.

The researchers found that humans and birds, who share some similar vocal constraints on sound production, create similar music patterns such as melodic arches.

“This melodic arch comes from how people breathe when they sing,” says Tierney. “People take a breath, sing while exhaling, and then take another breath. Song birds also sing while exhaling, but when they take a breath, they do so between each note. This leads to a tendency for melodic arch shapes in individual notes.”

Patel says this finding is very surprising. “The evolution of humans and birds is thought to have diverged some 250 million years ago. So when you discover common behaviour in two species that are so distinctly removed, this is very unusual.”

The study, The Motor Origins of Human and Avian Song Structure, was supported by the Neurosciences Research Foundation.

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