Can Animals Be Musicians?

Can Animals Be Musicians?

this video is sponsored by CuriosityStream! hey, welcome to 12tone! this week's guest
video comes from Sheryl, creator of The Roving Naturalist. Sheryl's an expert on wildlife, and today
she's looking at a group of musicians that's far too often overlooked. take it away, Sheryl! 12Tone has tackled the question of “what
is music” a few times before, but always when considering sounds made and arranged
by humans. But humans aren’t the only animals on Earth
that intentionally make sounds, so I came to the Phillips Park Zoo in Aurora, Illinois,
to explore other animal sounds and to wonder if any of them can be considered music. Animals can make sounds in the same three
ways that humans do: percussion, so hitting things against one another; vibration of a
string or membrane; or exhalation, like playing a wind instrument or singing. And humans and animals make sounds for the
same basic reason: communication. To break it down a bit more, animals might
make sounds in order to claim a territory, warn others about approaching danger, attract
mates, or otherwise communicate with other members of their group. It feels like the latter two reasons are most
often the motivation behind human music, but I suppose you could make an argument for the
others as well. Let’s start at what some people would call
the “simplest” animals and talk about invertebrates. I’m sure you’re already aware that a lot
of insects make sounds, but have you ever wondered how? So let’s say you’re trying to recreate
a perfect summer afternoon. You’ve got the sun, some grass, a cool breeze,
and the perfect background music. [lawnmower sound] Guh, no, not that. [insect sounds] Much better! That iconic summer sound is made by two groups
of insects with different noise-making strategies. First, crickets and grasshoppers use a technique
called “stridulation,” which is where they rub rough areas of their legs and wings
together, like running your finger over the top of a comb. Secondly, cicadas contribute to the summer
insect symphony by vibrating a special membrane on their bodies called a tymbal. This isn’t like human singing, though – the
vibration is caused by a movement of the insect’s body, rather than the forced movement of air
over membranes like those of your vocal chords. In fact, there’s only one kind of insect
that makes noise via exhalation: the Madagascar hissing cockroach! These insects take in air through their spiracles,
which are small holes for breathing that line the edges of the abdomen. If something startles the cockroach, it quickly
pushes the air back out of its spiracles, creating a hissing sound caused by the air
being forced through very small openings. Speaking of hissing, let’s talk about reptiles. A snake’s hiss is an exhalation, just like
singing or talking, and the same can be said for the impressive bellows that male alligators
and crocodiles make. But the other snake warning sound, a rattlesnake’s
rattle, is a percussive sound, made when the snake shakes the modified scales on its tail
and they click together. But the animals that are the real pros at
making music are amphibians, mammals, and of course birds. Did you know that amphibians are amazing singers? Each spring, if you visit a pond or other
wetland area, you’re sure to hear at least one kind of frog or toad singing to attract
a mate. The males inhale huge amounts of air, then
slowly release it in order to vibrate their vocal sacs, like this male American toad. Mammals make sounds for a wide variety of
reasons. Wolves howl to communicate over long distances,
bats squeak to echolocate their food, chipmunks “chip” to warn others of danger, gibbons
sing duets with their mates, and some mammals, like elk, sing to attract mates. Perhaps the most well-known mammal noises
(besides our own, of course) are the songs of whales and dolphins, who use a system of
complex airways and fatty tissues in their heads to produce many unique whistles, clicks,
and tones. But the hands-down winners for sound making
in the animal kingdom are, of course, the birds. Bird sounds come in as many varieties as bird
colors and shapes. They’re so versatile that some, like mockingbirds,
parrots, and the famous lyre bird, are able to mimic other birds, other animals, electronics,
vehicles, and human speech with amazing clarity. We humans like to use birds to convey ideas
or set the scene in movies and TV shows, and none is more popular than the bald eagle. So I bet you’ve heard this sound before:
[hawk call]. But that’s not the call of an eagle… That sound belongs to this bird, the red-tailed
hawk. So what do eagles sound like? Mostly they make this alarm call, which reminds
me of something like a very large and very grumpy chicken. However, the bird sounds I’m most interested
in are the songs male birds use to attract mates, like this peacock. We call these bird noises “songs” because
they follow a lot of the same rules that songs performed by people do. For instance, a species’ song has a particular
set of notes and a unique pattern that birdwatchers can use for identification. Similarly, the things we often call “music”
have a particular set of notes and a unique pattern that you recognize every time you
hear the song. Bird songs can also allow some room for improvisation
or individual styles that males develop as their learn their songs. Some bird songs even have an “accent”
depending on what region the individual bird is from! So, I guess you could say this prairie chicken
has a Midwestern accent? So what do you think: are animals musicians,
and can we consider any of the noises they make to be songs or music? The next time you’re outside, I hope you
take a moment to consider this question while you listen to all of the animal sounds around
you. thanks, Sheryl! if you want to check out more
of her work, she did a really cool video where she participated in a controlled burn of a
prairie and documented the entire process. it's a fascinating story, and she walks you
through it from start to finish. there's a link to that in the description. plus, as a bonus, I composed her theme song! but before you go, we couldn't have done this
guest video series without our sponsors, so I'd like to take a second to thank CuriosityStream
for their support. for those of you who don't know, CuriosityStream's
a streaming service that specializes in documentaries, covering a wide range of topics including
music, art, history, and science. one that I've been particularly enjoying recently
is called Music of the Future. check it out! *snap* this is part of a CuriosityStream original
series called Dream The Future, narrated by Sigourney Weaver, which asks experts to speculate
on what a particular aspect of life will look like in the year 2050. their episode on music explores how changing
technologies and evolving artistic styles may shape the future of music. are they right? I mean, we won't know for sure for another
30 years, but it's really fun to speculate. *snap* and that's just one of the over 24
hundred documentaries on CuriosityStream, including lots of other originals featuring
familiar faces like David Attenborough, Stephen Hawking, and more. they're even offering 12tone viewers a free
31-day membership to get you started, so just click the link in the description, use the
promo code "12tone" when signing up, and have fun learning. and hey, thanks for watching, thanks to our
Patreon patrons for making these videos possible! if you want to help out, and get some sweet
perks like sneak peeks of upcoming episodes, there's a link to our Patreon on screen now. you can also join our mailing list to find
out about new episodes, like, share, comment, subscribe, and above all, keep on rockin'.


  • ChasMusic says:

    Then again, there's the Thai Elephant Orchestra.

  • Saam says:

    that nasally ass chicken is DEFINITELY midwestern.

  • remem95 says:

    Reminded me of God's Chorus of Crickets. Gotta listen to that more often again.

  • Pangui says:

    3:24 those toads are connecting to the Internet at 54Kbps/s O__o

  • doop doop says:

    that chicken looks like a pokemon

  • nacoran says:

    We had a bird near campus when I was in college that used to mimic sounds. It started mimicking the sound of the crosswalk beep. I had to warn public safety so they could warn the blind students about it.

  • Colin Ultramoto says:

    check out Pam Aus for amaaaazing eagle sounds

  • CYGNETURE Sounds says:

    Holy shit, that chicken!

  • tymime says:

    I feel the key thing that makes music music is it's made for entertainment. I don't know any animals that make noises just for fun.

  • rillloudmother says:

    I used to hear a mockingbird who was old enough to have memorized those old car alarms rom the 90s and he would sing the cycle which was heavily modified by him as part of his early morning calls. I called him Bird.

  • nessesaryschoolthing says:

    1:06 "These are most often the motivations behind human music"
    "human music"

    Hmm. Human music… I like it!

  • Nicholas Pendleton says:

    But can they I V IV VI

  • Herman Miller says:

    Many bird songs sound more musical when slowed down, for instance the Veery (a kind of thrush). Here's a good example at

  • Rob Ranney-Blake says:

    I regularly hear three birds in the Mimidae family, famous for imitations. The Northern Mockingbird repeats each of it’s many imitations a bunch of times before going on to the next, a show-off soloist. The Brown Thrasher presents his copied songs in pairs: to me, this sounds the most like music, in couplets. The Gray Catbird just blasts out crazy jazz improv, with the occasional quote.

  • Jonah Meert says:

    Musicians can be animals sometimes. Why not the other way around too.

  • Lord man says:

    69th comment

  • The Addict Of Gaming says:

    3:12 So that's what Kermit the frog was doing…

  • Têt'dmétal Chèvrehumaine says:

    Finna get that vegan noise we call mewsic

  • S Mcphee says:

    What about the male palm cockatoo which drums a stick against a hollow to signal to its mate.

  • S Mcphee says:

    The oscines, a sub order of the passerines, are the real talents here! But is it song — or speech? I know from observing our local butcherbirds and (australian) magpies they have definite family call and response used in particular situations. They also sometimes sing quietly to themselves!

  • Jeff Lima says:

    I wonder if when a cardinal hears a whippoorwill singing the cardinal is, like, "oh man, I wish I could sing like that," or if he's like 'pfft, THAT's not MUSIC."

  • Rex Juglandorum says:

    "Perhaps the most well known mammal noises…are the songs of whales and dolphins."
    Umm…what? What about dogs barking? Cats meowing? Cows mooing? Horses neighing? Mice squeaking?

  • Justin Carter says:

    This channel is starting to feel like Bill Nye The Music Guy

  • Jeff Lima says:

    In human music keeping the beat is very important, and we recognize transpositions of a melody as the same song. That is, if "Happy Birthday to You" is played in A major instead of C major, and is slowed down or sped up, humans recognize this as the same song. There are surprisingly few animals that naturally can do this (parrots, seals, elephants? for keeping the beat, ??? for transposing), so I think human understanding of music is substantially different than animal understanding of music.

  • Brooklynn Whidden says:

    i wanna hear this women tell me about every bugs forever

  • Ana M says:

    Yes animal can sing and create musical sound pitch

  • Orlopzi says:

    1:06 Hmm. Human music. I like it! (1, 2, 1, rest. 1, 2, 1, rest.)

    Loved this video. Wonderful unusual musical angle to take. Would have loved to have seen you in there too tho! Maybe analyzing a few bird songs!
    Thanks for the video.

  • Chris Wilson says:

    Glad you kept the intro

  • Ace Lightning says:

    Some snakes that aren't rattlesnakes vibrate the tips of their tails in a similar manner, rattling against dead leaves and stuff. I've heard wolves calling to one another in the forest, and they seem to be singing – if you howl back at them, you can converse with them. And what about elephants who have been given access to a piano, and play boogie-woogie?

  • Raelı says:

    I feel like stronger parallels can be drawn to speech and verbal communication than music.

  • Bruno Wiebelt says:

    nice redhead bird 🙂

  • Murrlin27 says:

    I'm digging these guest commentaries!! Also, BIRTH STATE REPRESENT! <3

  • seiph80 says:

    Honorable mention? The whip-poor-will, that onomatopoeic sound that bird does!

  • Metallic Bunny says:

    If you sample bird songs, do you owe the bird royalties?

  • Gizensha Fox says:

    I'd say no since the sounds they make are (to our knowledge) purely functional, but that isn't saying it doesn't sound pleasant, or can't be used in music via artistic curation

  • a52Productions says:

    There are some really fascinating connections between vocal mimickry, language or proto-language, and musical behavior. It seems like you can't have one without the other two. For anyone interested, I highly recommend the paper "Spontaneous Motor Entrainment to Music in Multiple Vocal Mimicking Species", by Schachner et al., as well as pretty much all of Irene Pepperberg's work.

    Zoomusicology is a fascinating subject

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