Facts So Romantic

Do Other Animals Make Music, or Just Sounds?

African clawed frog photo: Flickr user "calliope"

The question in the title of this post involves not one but two enigmas: Artistic merit is an abstract and slippery concept, and assigning intention to the actions of other species is a perpetual challenge. Thus, the question invites various, contradictory answers. Still, I find myself inspired by the activities of other animals, and believe that many biological phenomena are rich with artistic value.

In the middle of the night, I am called into the office at the back of my small apartment by the sound of my singing pet frogs. They screech at a rhythm that makes them sound like firing machine guns—click click click click click. For reasons that I don’t fully understand, I like to be awoken by this cacophony.

I have two frogs: an albino that I’ve named Snowball, and a spotted one that I call, predictably, Spot. They didn’t begin singing until a few weeks ago, and once they began they became significantly more interesting roommates. Prior to their vocal outbursts—a sign of their sexual maturation—I often peered down into their murky tank and felt a lonely boredom. They are African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis), aquatic animals that live entirely underwater, but the translucence of their habitat has not allowed me many insights regarding their behavior. I don’t have much in common with Snowball and Spot, and thus I have had a difficult time decoding the meanings and intentions behind their actions. They hover motionlessly in the water, presumably holding frog thoughts in their heads, then spontaneously dart in unpredictable trajectories that send them bouncing off the walls of their tank in random directions. When they sing, however, I hear an invitation into their underwater world. Their songs offer me an opportunity to join in a shared experience that bridges the boundary separating our species. I become inspired where I was once alienated and disappointed.

Similar to my captivation by the songs of my frogs, the avant garde composer Jim Nollman has brought other organisms into his compositions. His unique biography brought him from the music scene of 1970’s San Francisco to a town in the south of Mexico, San Cristobal de las Casas. While abroad, he began to practice with indigenous instruments. One morning, while playing a flute, he emitted a note that elicited a gobble from a nearby turkey. The two musicians, human and turkey, continued to play together while adding choreography to their performance. The turkey performed a dance, stepping forward and backward to Nollman’s tune. While it is difficult to ascribe intention to the turkey’s behavior, we know that this performance was exploratory rather than functional for Nollman, at least. Music and dance served as a language that allowed these two distinct beings to share a unique experience that enlivened them to the richness of other forms of being.

They screech at a rhythm that makes them sound like firing machine guns—click click click click click. For reasons that I don’t fully understand, I like to be awoken by this cacophony.

Biologists have also taken an interest in the vocal patterns of other organisms. These researchers have investigated the evolution of species by tracing specific tones and tunes across space and time. For example, the neuroethologist Darcy Kelley has explored the various lineages of Xenopus frogs—the same type as my pets—in part through sonic clues. In her most recent article [pdf], she suggests that species-specific calls are the result of selective pressures. Thus, for these organisms survival hinges on an ability to sing and detect appealing songs, which consequently allow them to find mates. David Rothenberg, a musician as well as a philosopher of science, has used this fact as a starting point to suggest that the evolution of life has been guided by a pursuit of beauty. (Rothenberg’s current interests are in the music of bugs, and he has several upcoming events in the Northeast this summer where he will perform compositions alongside insects, including the emerging swarm of cicadas.)

Those who deny that other animals can produce works of art will argue that these examples fail to demonstrate a self-aware intent. Or perhaps they might protest that these occurrences serve a purely functional purpose. I might disagree, though I am willing to concede these points. But I will not agree that it diminishes their significance as works of art that are capable of reaching transcendent heights. Indeed, since the beginning of the 20th century, when Marcel Duchamp transformed the banal—famously, a urinal—into a pinnacle of artistic achievement, the labor, intention, and context that surrounds the production of artistic works has been overshadowed by the final products’ ability to communicate a novel concept. Stroll through any museum of contemporary art, and it is immediately clear that the goal of these works is not to be beautiful, but rather to be thought-provoking.

The songs of my frogs and the dance of Nollman’s turkey meet this criterion. These performances animate the mysteries that are concealed on the other side of the species boundary, the space that this journal has been interrogating for the past month. In these instances, human spectators are teased with brief glimpses into the lives of other organisms. By becoming aware that these beings conceal surprising secrets, we are able to freely reflect on new possibilities. If we take them seriously, then they will prove to be as inspiring as our own imagination.

Charlie Nichols studied studio arts before turning his attention to cultural anthropology. As a graduate student, he studies the politics of wildlife management and the social impacts of extinction.

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