Searching for music’s meaning by composing for monkeys

Posted on: September 2, 2009

Wednesday (9/2) on the National Public Radio site, Richard Harris reports, “Music has great power to alter our emotions—making us happy or sad, agitated or calm. Psychologists have tried in vain to figure out why that happens. Now, a composer says he has a clue. And he got it by writing music not for humans, but for monkeys. David Teie plays cello with the National Symphony Orchestra and even on occasion with the heavy metal band Metallica. He’s also a composer. Teie has been developing a theory to explain why music plays on human emotions. His theory is that music relates to the most primitive sounds we make and respond to, like laughter, heartbeats, or a mother’s cooing.” So Teie decided to test his theory on monkeys. He asked Chuck Snowden, a psychology professor who managed a colony of monkeys called cotton-top tamarins at the University of Wisconsin, to email some sound clips of the animals, and used them as inspiration for a composition. Teie “played the compositions on his cello and then electronically boosted them up three octaves, to a pitch that matched the monkeys’ voices.” Music with a rhythm similar to a tamarin’s resting heart rate calmed the monkeys, and music written with the aim to agitate them had the adverse effect.

Posted September 2, 2009