Chimps predisposed to music and like to boogie, study shows

By Nilima Marshall, PA Science Reporter

Chimpanzees have a sense of rhythm and like to move to the beat, according to a new study.

Scientists have found that listening to music prompts the primates to perform rhythmic movements such as swaying, hand-clapping and foot-tapping.

The researchers say that understanding more about the predisposition of these great apes to music could shed light on how humans came to appreciate melodies.

Dr Yuko Hattori and professor Masaki Tomonaga, of Kyoto University in Japan, studied seven chimpanzees who were exposed to six two-minute piano compositions for six days.

They found that while the music was being played, the chimps swayed their bodies and bobbed their heads and, sometimes, went as far as clapping their hands and tapping their feet.

The team also found that male chimpanzees were more likely to respond to the tunes by being more vocal and swaying rhythmically for longer durations compared with their female counterparts.

In their paper, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Pnas), the researchers noted: “Given that humans do not have such a sex difference in musical ability, higher sensitivity to sound in male chimpanzees may have been acquired after chimpanzees diverged from the common ancestor shared with humans.

A male chimpanzee dancing to music at an enclosure at the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University in Japan (Yuko Hattori/Kyoto University)

“This may also be associated with their patriarchal society, where male chimpanzees often collaborate to protect their territory and group members.”

To understand more about their musical inclination, the researchers selected the chimpanzee most responsive to the music.

They then exposed the animal, called Akira, to additional musical sessions, with four two-minute experiences for 24 days.

The researchers found that both random and regular beats induced rhythmic swaying in Akira.

The movements were more pronounced when Akira was standing on two feet rather than on all fours, which the researchers believe could be down to the chimpanzee having a greater flexibility in the bipedal posture.

In addition, Akira also stayed longer in the area where music was playing, indicating that the chimpanzee actively sought musical stimulation.

The chimpanzee enclosure at the Primate Research Institute (Yuko Hattori/Kyoto University)

According to the authors, the findings point to a foundation for dancing in a common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans.

The team wrote in the paper: “In humans, listening to music induces rhythmic movement, suggesting a close connection between the auditory and motor areas in the brain.

“These results suggest that prerequisites for music and dance are deeply rooted and existed in the common ancestor shared by humans and chimpanzees, approximately six million years ago.”

Meanwhile, in a separate study also published in Pnas, scientists have found that chimpanzees share tools with each other and teach their fellow beings new skills so they are able to perform complex and challenging food-hunting tasks.

Researchers in the US say that this act of sharing tools and skills in chimpanzees is similar to that seen in humans.