For the past several weeks, I’ve been working on a short film as my final project for the class, ‘Animals, Art, and Technology,’ taught by artist Gal Nissim as part of New York University’s Master’s program in Animal Studies. The film (above) represents a personal essay and commentary on the nature of how we (humans) look at and communicate about (nonhuman) animals. I am keenly interested in expanding this project into something larger in scope but, in the meantime, I hope that you enjoy the current version and welcome any and all questions, comments, and feedback. Thanks for watching!
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.
It’s reasonably self-evident that nonhuman animals inhabit sensory worlds different from our own, human experiential landscapes. Indeed, a dog’s nose captures more than mine can, and blind bats communicate using echolocation. But how often do we really consider what those worlds might feel like? Experiencing Listen to the World (by The New York Times) encourages the imagination to begin to crack the door into those different worlds, and offers new pathways towards increasing empathy and understanding for other beings.
In the Maromizaha Forest, Madagascar, monogamous Indri (the largest living lemurs) howl to one another. To my human ears, they remind me of trumpet horns, or perhaps the amplified sound of helium escaping the narrow lips of a balloon’s tight opening. The males and females sound different. The calls between new couples are at first disjointed but, as the bond grows, their sounds become more coordinated. Of course, one can parallel the level of communication in our human romantic relationships. Though at first uneven, we gradually come to know our partners, verbally and nonverbally, in deeper and more profound ways. To a lemur, those trumpet-like sounds must contain a level of richness and nuance I’ll never know.
Bioacoustic scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution monitor soundscapes of the coral reefs in St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The sounds they gather provide insight into the health of the reefs. Listening to reef, one can hear the pervasive sizzling sound of snapping shrimp, even though they are invisible to the unaided eye. Fish sounds crop up here and there: lower-pitched “grunts” and “croaks” and “purrs” and “pulses” and “thumps,” as one scientist describes them. Broadly speaking, this field of study- soundscape ecology- explores the acoustic relationships between living organisms, human and nonhuman, and their environments. My main exposure to ocean life stems from video content, like nature documentaries. Stunning as underwater footage may be, it belies how little one really experiences that scene relying on vision alone.
As a New Yorker, I find the auditory worlds of rats to be particularly striking. New York is the city that never sleeps, perhaps in part because it’s always noisy. Car horns and subways and the indistinct murmurs of millions of individual humans fill my ears every day. But outside my human range of hearing lies a different stratosphere of sound, a world I cannot sense. In this “acoustic niche,” rats can hear each other speak. Ultrasonic microphones and computer manipulation offer us a glimpse of these conversational universes: endless chatter, rolling moans that sound like they came from misshapen flutes, and the chuckling sound of (actual) rat laughter. Waiting for the subway today, I watched a rat crawling along the track as a train approached. I braced myself for the F train’s unbearable screech, and couldn’t help wondering what the rat thought about that massive hunk of metal gliding towards them. Perhaps not much at all; they had better things to listen to.
The cumulative effect of exploring these animals’ auditory lives, even briefly, humbles my human mind. All around us, there are worlds that we cannot sense, complete parallel realities. Every day, I rely on a balance of senses that serve me well, but my world is just a miniscule fraction of what’s out there. When considering nonhuman animal lives, it’s essential that we stretch our imaginations. Wondering what these animals experience is not only a fun and stimulating creative exercise, but also is a fundamental component of building empathy for other beings. They live in worlds at once totally different and completely the same as ours, and in that overlap lies a beautiful capacity for understanding, if only we’re willing to listen.