In spite of a significant heap of scientific research, I believe that nonhuman animals can appreciate music. In order to understand my argument, though, we’ll have to expand the definition of what music can be.
When I was an undergraduate student, back in the early 2010s, two of my housemates got into a late night debate about what defines “music.” (The fact that mild psychedelics played a role is worth noting for context, but ultimately beyond the point.) It started when one of them expressed his hatred for the band, The National (he didn’t think their work could be called music), and slowly devolved into a heated discussion about the nature of our human auditory experience. I sat by as a spectator, at one point trying to interject with a gesture of peace and reconciliation by saying, “Everything is music.”
While part of my comment was half-baked, it’s something I believe to this day, and it makes me wonder about the nature of the musical experience for both humans and nonhumans. Science tells us that, for the most part, the appreciation of music is unique to human beings. While cockatoos, for example, can sense and mimic rhythm, there are gaps in their comprehension of other musical elements.
Merriam-Webster defines music in its barest sense as “an arrangement of sounds having melody, rhythm, and usually harmony.” The Oxford definition invokes music’s “expression of emotion.” Both of these notions reflect music’s external-facing characteristics, though, that which it presents to the world. But what of the other side? Can music also be defined by the impact that it has on an individual, by the way in which it is received?
That is, might music also be considered any sound or collection of sounds that elicit an emotional response in the listener? In that sense, I imagine animals do appreciate music. Does a bird not enjoy the call of their mate? I can’t help but imagine that a thirsty deer relishes the sound of a flowing brook. Maybe this argument is as half-baked as it was back in college, but I stand by it, if only in order to further the point that there is an unseen richness to the lives of nonhuman animals that we people can barely fathom, let alone aesthetically appreciate.
Perhaps this contention can spur someone else’s late night argument over what is (and is not) music. Until proven otherwise, though, I’ll go on thinking that a bullfrog’s late night croak is the powerfully elegant drumbeat of a yearning mate. Whether or not they like The National, though, is a totally different story.