Animal Musicalities: Birds, Beasts, and Evolutionary Listening

Animal Musicalities: Birds, Beasts, and Evolutionary Listening

by Rachel Mundy


$29.36 $29.95 Save 2% Current price is $29.36, Original price is $29.95. You Save 2%.
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Tuesday, August 27


Over the past century and a half, the voices and bodies of animals have been used by scientists and music experts as a benchmark for measures of natural difference. Animal Musicalities traces music’s taxonomies from Darwin to digital bird guides to show how animal song has become the starting point for enduring evaluations of species, races, and cultures. By examining the influential efforts made by a small group of men and women to define human diversity in relation to animal voices, this book raises profound questions about the creation of modern human identity, and the foundations of modern humanism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819578068
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 06/05/2018
Series: Music/Culture Series
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 1,237,034
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

RACHEL MUNDY is an assistant professor of music in the arts, culture, and media program at Rutgers University in Newark. She specializes in twentieth-century sonic culture with interests at the juncture of music, the history of science, and animal studies. Mundy’s current work relocates contemporary posthumanism and critical philosophy as the refrain of a century-long encounter with changing boundaries between species, race, and culture.

Read an Excerpt


Why Do Birds Sing? And Other Tales

In 1913, Henry Oldys, a biologist working for the US Department of Agriculture, wrote enthusiastically to readers of the nation's premier journal of bird science, The Auk, "Astonishing and revolutionary as it may seem, there is no escape from the conclusion that the evolution of bird music independently parallels the evolution of human music." Born in 1859, the year Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Oldys was part of a generation exposed to controversial new ideas about the role animals played in human social and cultural development. In the foreground of this controversy were the names of Darwin and Herbert Spencer, whose ideas about the animal origins of human song put birdsong on the map of the new science of cultural evolution. Over the course of the next century, thinkers like Oldys increasingly took up the question of how animals, especially birds, were tied to the evolutionary origins of song. As music historian Robert Lach explained, the question "Why do birds sing?" was seen by scholars of culture and science as "the key to the problem of the origin of language and music." At its heart, this was a question that meant rethinking the capacity for music, raising surprisingly complex questions not only about animals, but about human beings and just how special their musical abilities really were.

Why do birds sing? By asking this question at all, intellectuals such as Lach and Oldys imagined a capacity for music that held forth the tantalizing promise of connecting song, still imagined today as deeply human, to a totally alien world of nonhuman experience. The evolutionary discourse that developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries around Darwin's and Spencer's texts debated the relation of these two worlds, struggling to fill the gap between the music of modern civilized humans and the primal sounds of their animal ancestors. The unknown space of this gap contained the key to a biological science of culture, in an era deeply invested in justifying racial hierarchies through science. As evolutionary historian Peter Bowler has explained, "virtually all evolutionists [at this time] accepted the linear image of human origins and used it to justify prevailing racial prejudice." It is a period in which Darwinian evolution coexisted with diverse theories of saltation, orthogenesis, neo-Lamarckism, eugenics, social Darwinism, and other approaches that invited comparison between biology and culture. Against this backdrop, music emerged as one of the "missing links" that promised to fill the gap between biology and culture in evolution's story with the sounds of animals' cries and "primitive" human songs.

At the center of these debates about music were the works of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. The two men were well known, Darwin for his history of biological evolution in the Origin of Species and Spencer for his studies of human development in works such as The Principles of Sociology. Their theories of music reflected their broader interests: Darwin, the biological historian, argued that music like birdsong affected mate selection and offspring, while Spencer, the social historian, argued that song had to do with the boundary between human reason and emotion. For Darwin, birdsong and human song were both legitimate forms of music; for Spencer, only humans made true music. As later authors debated music's place in evolution, the subtleties of Darwin's and Spencer's arguments were sometimes lost in accounts of Darwin as the defender of animal musicality, and Spencer as his opponent.

This discourse took shape across numerous disciplines, sometimes in indirect ways. In this chapter, I reconstruct its main arguments by drawing on voices from a wide range of disciplinary identities and a period spanning several decades, connecting the threads that crossed these disciplinary and temporal divides. The Darwin-Spencer debates about music's origins mark an initial stage in this discourse, which took place in the late nineteenth century. Its primary contributors were European evolutionists, including the biologists August Weismann and George Romanes, and the British psychologists James Sully and Edmund Gurney. Other voices in these debates, like Lach, were formally trained music scholars from Europe or the United States. They were the first generation of "musicologists," historians of music who turned away from biographies of great masters like Beethoven and Bach toward a broader-reaching social science inspired by figures such as Spencer. A third set of voices in musical evolutionism came from the natural and social sciences, where biologists, psychologists, and anthropologists had an interest in connecting animal aesthetics to human development, particularly in Britain and the United States, where Darwinism was on the rise. Finally, the voice of the naturalist had an important role in these debates as well, contributing firsthand experience shaped by hunting, hiking, and observation. This was particularly true for experts in birdsong, a field so new that there was no formal schooling in it — Oldys was a case in point, working as a lawyer and auditor before building his reputation as a biologist with the Department of Agriculture.

Although many of these men and women operated in separate professional spheres, they were connected by books, pamphlets, and journals. Print was the medium of their discourse, allowing widely flung experts and amateurs to trade ideas. In the pages that follow, I trace the war in print over animal musicality from its initial phase in the Darwin-Spencer debates of the 1870s to later appropriations of their ideas in the early twentieth century. Although Darwin's and Spencer's opposed theories of music were not solely about music's role in determining human uniqueness, the texts inspired by them often returned to this refrain. In tracing this burgeoning science of music to the texts that inspired it, I hope to show how listening to culture and listening to nature merged over a period of several decades to produce a practice of hearing biocultural difference, where song became a measure of other species' worth. The stakes of this debate were not merely an argument about evolutionary origins. They were about personhood, for to be a musician — human or animal — was to be a person.


Though Darwin and Spencer were a touchstone for debates about animal musicality, interest in the topic of animal musicality was already in the air. Scholars of the nineteenth century published anecdotal accounts of dogs, cats, and even horses barking, yowling, and marching in time to human music, hoping to understand where to draw the line between human and nonhuman ability. In the early twentieth century, psychologists and physiologists published measurements of animals' pulse rates in response to music, and the salivation of dogs as they recognized melody, harmony, and tempo. Decades before the arrival of "ecomusicology," George Herzog was able to ask members of the American Musicological Society, "Do Animals Have Music?" while The Musical Quarterly surveyed the musical taste of a veritable zoo of animals including dogs, cats, birds, snakes, monkeys, mice, cows, horses, chickens, and a flying squirrel. The possibility that music was a universal capacity remained open well into the twentieth century: as Herzog put it, "there seems to be no criterion for any theoretical separation of the vocal expression of animals from human music."

Advocates of animal musicality could be quite persuasive. In 1871, the year Darwin's Descent was published, an article by American minister Samuel Lockwood in The American Naturalist sparked a decade-long vogue in mouse music. Lockwood's essay documented his singing pet mouse Hespie in astounding detail. Describing Hespie's daily life and singing habits, Lockwood recorded her high-pitched songs using prose descriptions and transcriptions of Western musical notation. Arias like her "Wheel Song," he argued, were testaments to her musical taste, precision, and baroque sensibility for ornamentation. Interest in Lockwood's singing mouse spread from Darwin's Descent to the British journal Nature. Another symptom of animal music's popularity was British nature writer Charles Cornish's Life at the Zoo: Notes and Traditions of the Regent's Park Gardens, published in 1894. The book documented a series of informal experiments in which Cornish engaged a violinist to play for animals at the Regent's Park Zoological Gardens in London. Cornish, an author of British nature guides, walked around the zoo with his assistant playing popular tunes for selected animals, usually the Scottish reel "The Keel Row." (Scottish tunes were still considered exotic "natural melodies" free of any preconceived system, and thus might have seemed more appropriate for animal ears.) The results of Cornish's "experiments" were occasionally absurd — he claimed, for example, that wolves and sheep responded differently to "The Keel Row" because they were natural enemies, and that sheep preferred the "Shepherd's Call" sequence from William Tell because they were pastoral animals. But many of Cornish's examples were compelling, such as the photograph that showed axis deer turning their large ears to listen to the violinist. Like more and more descriptions of musical animals, Cornish's account documented animals who were sensitive and aware musical listeners.

Of all these anecdotes of musical creatures, those describing birds were the most compelling. "From the wearisome sameness of a sparrow's chirp," wrote the British psychologist James Sully, "up to the elaborate song of the skylark or nightingale, there presents itself something like a complete evolution of vocal melody." The variety that separated simple one-note calls from the long, complex songs of birds like the nightingale seemed to contain the story of music's development. Music scholars, ornithologists, naturalists, and science writers looked at topics ranging from the evolution of musical taste in birds to comparisons between American birds and American composer Stephen Foster's songwriting. Musical notation in bird guides reinforced the impression that birdsong was a musical artifact, subject to the laws of rhythm, melody, and harmony. Asserting the fundamental musicality of birdsong, ornithologist Francis Allen asked, "how can we escape imputing the origin and development of this beauty in bird-song to an aesthetic sense in the birds themselves?" Perhaps most important, birds held a place of honor in Darwin's claims about music, for he argued that one could "hear daily in the singing of birds" evidence that animals uttered musical notes.


There are, as is well known, two leading theories with regard to the origin of music — Mr. Darwin's and Mr. Herbert Spencer's.

Until the end of the nineteenth century, discussions of music's natural origins ranged from the mind-bending powers of musical ratios in Plato's Republic to Rousseau's Dictionnaire de Musique, completed in 1767. As early as 1650, Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher described a remarkable sloth singing a diatonic hexachord, as well as a bevy of singing birds that made later appearances in many a discussion of nonhuman musicality. Thinkers and philosophers such as Rousseau and Kircher, and the more recently minted names of Schiller, Herder, Wagner, and Helmholtz, added weight and expertise to questions about the origins of music throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. By the end of the nineteenth century, music had become the most prestigious of the fine arts, its unique powers of emotional expression making it, in the words of British social philosopher Herbert Spencer, "one of the characteristics of our age." Music was repeatedly described as the "language of the soul" by intellectuals ranging from Johann Herder to Russian author Andrei Bely. But during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, music's spiritual language increasingly took on an evolutionary tone, becoming integral to a growing discourse about biology's relationship to human culture and identity. Even the fictional detective-violinist Sherlock Holmes became a musical evolutionist, reminding his companion Dr. Watson that daring ideas about music and language were necessary to grasp the breadth of nature's ways:

"Do you remember what Darwin says about music? He claims that the power of producing and appreciating it existed among the human race long before the power of speech was arrived at."

"That's a rather broad idea," I remarked.

"One's ideas must be as broad as Nature if they are to interpret Nature," he answered.

By the time Sherlock Holmes was hunting down criminals with his cold British logic, Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer had become public voices of modern science, and the two leading figures in musical evolutionism: "the two theories of the origin of music which have claimed the attention of critics are Darwin's and Spencer's."

Framing these ideas "as broad as Nature" was a much older set of beliefs about the place of language in human identity. In Darwin's day, it was widely assumed that language demarcated a definitive leap between human and animal psyches, a rupture whose relation to music was uncertain. Eighteenth-century figures such as Rousseau and Herder had popularized theories that language was the seat of human intelligence, emphasizing the rational ties that bound Homo sapiens, the man of reason, into a universal talking brotherhood. Enlightenment theories of language prompted so much speculation over the following century that the Parisian Société de Linguistique issued an ineffectual ban on the topic of language origins in 1866, hoping to control further debate. Instead, the topic continued to thrive, fostering guesses about syntax, grammar, and translatability as possible trademarks of the intelligent mind separating human language from animal vocalizations. As Henri Bergson explained in L'Évolution créatrice of 1907, human language hinged on the distinction between instinct and invention: "the instinctive sign [of the animal] is adherent, the intelligent sign [of the human] is mobile" — that is, animal cries had a fixed, instinctive meaning dictated by nature, while human words were a matter of invented convention and, therefore, a mark of superior intelligence. Even with the rise of colonialism and a corresponding emphasis on racial distinctions at the turn of the century, Bergson's contemporaries still believed, as Herder had, that humanity could be universally defined as "the talking animal." Attempts like Richard Garner's to decode primate language, described by historian of science Gregory Radick, extended this intelligent sign no further than humanity's closest relatives.

Music had a very ambiguous relationship to this view of language. The sounds of birdsong and other musical animal vocalizations were not the intelligent signs of language, nor were they the proto-linguistic responses biologists dubbed "calls." But neither were they innate — some animals had to learn their songs through such arduous study that the idea of animal conservatories with "properly qualifiedprofessors" to refine animals' musical abilities was floated at the turn of the century. Though not a mark of reason, song in animals seemed very similar to song in humans. As a result, music occupied an undefined — and potentially contested — territory between animal expression and human linguistic rationality. For evolutionists like Darwin and Spencer, defining this ambiguous territory would mean defining what it meant to be human.

Darwin's The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, published in 1871, used music and aesthetics to challenge prevailing beliefs about this boundary line between humans and other animals. "The place of song in the life of the bird has since the days of Darwin been a question of dispute between the scientists," wrote ornithologist Chauncey Hawkins in 1918. This "dispute" echoed the broader anxieties about human uniqueness that had surrounded the Origin of Species, but focused on a new question: whether culture, instead of biology, was what set humans apart from the animals. One of the most controversial implications of the Descent was that it did not.


Excerpted from "Animal Musicalities"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Rachel Mundy.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Why Do Birds Sing? And Other Tales
Collecting Silence: The Sonic Specimen
Collecting Songs, Avian and African
Songs on the Dissecting Table
Postmodern Humanity
Listening for Objectivity
The Rose Garden
The Animanities

What People are Saying About This

Jane Desmond

“This imaginative book brings together musicology, science and technology studies, and animal studies in exciting ways that will be of interest to scholars in a variety disciplines.”

From the Publisher

"This imaginative book brings together musicology, science and technology studies, and animal studies in exciting ways that will be of interest to scholars in a variety disciplines." —Jane Desmond, author of Displaying Death and Animating Life

"How deep are the connections between birdsong and human music? And why should we care? This fascinating and challenging book charts changing answers to these questions from the time of Darwin and Spencer to the present as it makes a compelling case for the study of culture in a more-than-human world."

—Gregory Radick, author of The Simian Tongue: The Long Debate about Animal Language

Gregory Radick

“How deep are the connections between birdsong and human music? And why should we care? This fascinating and challenging book charts changing answers to these questions from the time of Darwin and Spencer to the present as it makes a compelling case for the study of culture in a more-than-human world.”

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews