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Michelle Spierings aims for Klokhuis Wetenschapsprijs with musicality animals

Tapping to a rhythm, recognizing sound patterns and enjoying music: For people, it is common sense. But is this also the case for animals? It is the research topic of Michelle Spierings, a researcher at the Institute of Biology Leiden, and it is nominated for the Klokhuis Wetenschapsprijs.

‘A sense of rhythm and sound is essential as a baby,’ Spierings explains. ‘From a very early age, we start noticing intonation, tempo and rests between words to learn how to speak a language. Musical recognition is thus a fundamental property of humans. However, that does not seem to be the case with our closest living relatives in the animal kingdom, apes.’

Chicken-egg dilemma

But what is the origin of our musicality? And what was there first, the sense of rhythm or language? With her research, Spierings tries to answer this chicken-egg dilemma. That is a difficult feat, as there are no musicality fossils. To compensate, the researcher looks at the behavior of different animal species.

Spierings (right) with collegue and co-researcher Henkjan Honing

Learn from others

‘People are vocal learners. That means that we learn to talk by imitating others. If we do not interact with other people while growing up, it is impossible to learn a language. Vocal learning is an exceptional trait that only occurs in a few species, such as some birds, bats, and dolphin- and whale species. The sounds that apes make, for example, are congenial, and barely change during their lives,’ Spiering says. 

One of the ideas that researchers currently investigate, it that musical learning is linked to vocal learning. Spierings investigates this by putting vocal learning birds to the test. When pet parrots sing along to a song, the researcher pays their homes a visit to analyze the likeness to the original song. By changing the pitch or the chord in which the melody is played and subsequently study the birds’ reaction, she looks at the link between language and musicality.  
Also with apes, she tests their musical abilities. And who thinks that apes can listen relaxedly to Bach in a testing room, is not completely wrong. ‘But we don’t let them hear classical music, but simple tunes with which we look if they can separate simple alternations,’ Spierings explains. 

A different point of view for children

Spierings is still in the middle of her research, but thinks the subject is especially suited for the Klokhuis Wetenschapsprijs. ‘The distinction with the other research subjects is vast. There is a lot of applied research, while this fundamental research can show that in some cases, it is important to investigate just to understand how it works. It shows children a different point of view. 
The winner gets their own episode of the children's educational program Klokhuis. ‘I think it would be massively interesting to highlight this research. People are so often the main subject. But humans are just a small part of this world. And maybe we are unique because we can do many different things. But if you look at the animal kingdom, many show some “human” traits. Even musicality is not typically human,’ Spierings concludes. 

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