Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Monkeys 'understand' rules underlying language musicality

Date:
November 13, 2013
Source:
University of Vienna
Summary:
Many of us have mixed feelings when remembering painful lessons in German or Latin grammar in school. Languages feature a large number of complex rules and patterns: using them correctly makes the difference between something which "sounds good," and something which does not. However, cognitive biologists have shown that sensitivity to very simple structural and melodic patterns does not require much learning, or even being human: South American squirrel monkeys can do it, too.

This is a Squirrel monkey/Saimiri sciureus.
Credit: M. Böckle

Many of us have mixed feelings when remembering painful lessons in German or Latin grammar in school. Languages feature a large number of complex rules and patterns: using them correctly makes the difference between something which "sounds good," and something which does not. However, cognitive biologists at the University of Vienna have shown that sensitivity to very simple structural and melodic patterns does not require much learning, or even being human: South American squirrel monkeys can do it, too.

Related Articles


Language and music are structured systems, featuring particular relationships between syllables, words and musical notes. For instance, implicit knowledge of the musical and grammatical patterns of our language makes us notice right away whether a speaker is native or not. Similarly, the perceived musicality of some languages results from dependency relations between vowels within a word. In Turkish, for example, the last syllable in words like "kaplanlar" or "güller" must "harmonize" with the previous vowels. (Try it yourself: "güllar" requires more movement and does not sound as good as "güller." )

Similar "dependencies" between words, syllables or musical notes can be found in languages and musical cultures around the world. The biological question is whether the ability to process dependencies evolved in human cognition along with human language, or is rather a more general skill, also present in other animal species who lack language.

Andrea Ravignani, a PhD candidate at the Department of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna, and his colleagues looked for this "dependency detection" ability in squirrel monkeys, small arboreal primates living in Central and South America. Inspired by the monkeys' natural calls and hearing predispositions, the researchers designed a sort of "musical system" for monkeys. These "musical patterns" had overall acoustic features similar to monkeys' calls, while their structural features mimicked syntactic or phonological patterns like those found in Turkish and many human languages.

Monkeys were first presented with "phrases" containing structural dependencies, and later tested using stimuli either with or without dependencies. Their reactions were measured using the "violation of expectations" paradigm. "Show up at work in your pyjamas, people will turn around and stare at you, while at a slumber party nobody will notice," explains Ravignani: In other words, one looks longer at something that breaks the "standard" pattern. "This is not about absolute perception, rather how something is categorized and contrasted within a broader system." Using this paradigm, the scientists found that monkeys reacted more to the "ungrammatical" patterns, demonstrating perception of dependencies. "This kind of experiment is usually done by presenting monkeys with human speech: Designing species-specific, music-like stimuli may have helped the squirrel monkeys' perception," argues primatologist and co-author Ruth Sonnweber.

"Our ancestors may have already acquired this simple dependency-detection ability some 30 million years ago, and modern humans would thus share it with many other living primates. Mastering basic phonological patterns and syntactic rules is not an issue for squirrel monkeys: the bar for human uniqueness has to be raised," says Ravignani: "This is only a tiny step: we will keep working hard to unveil the evolutionary origins and potential connections between language and music."

The research was funded by an ERC Advanced Grant, SOMACCA, to Prof. Tecumseh Fitch, which is exploring the broad biological basis for music, language, and visual art.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Vienna. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. A. Ravignani, R.-S. Sonnweber, N. Stobbe, W. T. Fitch. Action at a distance: dependency sensitivity in a New World primate. Biology Letters, 2013; 9 (6): 20130852 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2013.0852

Cite This Page:

University of Vienna. "Monkeys 'understand' rules underlying language musicality." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 13 November 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/11/131113130020.htm>.
University of Vienna. (2013, November 13). Monkeys 'understand' rules underlying language musicality. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 27, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/11/131113130020.htm
University of Vienna. "Monkeys 'understand' rules underlying language musicality." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/11/131113130020.htm (accessed November 27, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Plants & Animals News

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

New Dinosaur Species Found in Museum Collection

New Dinosaur Species Found in Museum Collection

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Nov. 27, 2014) — A British palaeontologist has discovered a new species of dinosaur while studying fossils in a Canadian museum. Pentaceratops aquilonius was related to Triceratops and lived at the end of the Cretaceous Period, around 75 million years ago. Jim Drury has more. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Classic Hollywood Memorabilia Goes Under the Hammer

Classic Hollywood Memorabilia Goes Under the Hammer

Reuters - Entertainment Video Online (Nov. 26, 2014) — The iconic piano from "Casablanca" and the Cowardly Lion suit from "The Wizard of Oz" fetch millions at auction. Sara Hemrajani reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Pet Dogs to Be Used in Anti-Ageing Trial

Pet Dogs to Be Used in Anti-Ageing Trial

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Nov. 26, 2014) — Researchers in the United States are preparing to discover whether a drug commonly used in human organ transplants can extend the lifespan and health quality of pet dogs. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
From Popcorn To Vending Snacks: FDA Ups Calorie Count Rules

From Popcorn To Vending Snacks: FDA Ups Calorie Count Rules

Newsy (Nov. 25, 2014) — The US FDA is announcing new calorie rules on Tuesday that will require everywhere from theaters to vending machines to include calorie counts. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories

 

Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins