Planet Earth

That ape’s got rhythm! Chimpanzees play drums just like humans (with music goodness).

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Photo: flickr/Tambako the Jaguar

Drummers may have a reputation as being the wildest members of a band, but apparently they have nothing on chimpanzees. In this study, the authors describe “an episode of spontaneous drumming” by a captive chimp named Barney that has many properties usually associated with human drumming. Barney’s instrument of choice was an overturned bucket, and his performance was unique particularly because of the evenness of his drumming (prior to this study, researchers thought that non-human primates did not display this kind of musicality). Click below to listen to Barney’s full album!

Chimpanzee drumming: a spontaneous performance with characteristics of human musical drumming.

“Despite the quintessential role that music plays in human societies by enabling us to release and share emotions with others, traces of its evolutionary origins in other species remain scarce. Drumming like humans whilst producing music is practically unheard of in our most closely related species, the great apes. Although beating on tree roots and body parts does occur in these species, it has, musically speaking, little in common with human drumming. Researchers suggest that for manual beating in great apes to be compared to human drumming, it should at least be structurally even, a necessary quality to elicit entrainment (beat induction in others). Here we report an episode of spontaneous drumming by a captive chimpanzee that approaches the structural and contextual characteristics usually found in musical drumming. This drumming differs from most beating episodes reported in this species by its unusual duration, the lack of any obvious context, and rhythmical properties that include long-lasting and dynamically changing rhythms, but also evenness and leisureliness. This performance is probably the first evidence that our capacity to drum is shared with our closest relatives.”

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