The Evolutionary Neuroscience of Musical Beat Perception

This past Friday, the School of Biology and Ecology welcomed Dr. Aniruddh Patel, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Tufts University, to give a talk as part of the SBE seminar series. The presentation, titled  “The evolutionary neuroscience of musical beat perception,” sparked the interest of many individuals across campus, drawing members from the Music, Psychology, and Biology departments.   Dr. Patel’s work focuses on music cognition, which is the mental processes involved in making, perceiving, and responding to music.  Specifically, he explores the relationship between music and language, and the neurological processing of musical rhythm.

Patel’s research suggests that musical beat perception is a complex brain function relying on the coordinated interaction of auditory regions and motor planning regions of the cerebral cortex.  His research also shows an intimate link between perception, action and emotion.  Interested in finding other species capable of beat perception, Patel observed a male Eleonora cockatoo named Snowball, after stumbling upon a YouTube video of Snowball dancing, shown above.  He began to experiment in order to determine whether or not Snowball was, in fact truly synchronizing his body movements to the music, opposed to mimicking his movements to that of humans.

 In order to see this, Snowball’s favorite piece of music was played to him at several different tempos and his reactions were recorded on video for later analysis. The results, published in the paper “Investigating the human-specificity of synchronization to music,” showed that Snowball was capable of spontaneously dancing to human music, as well as being able to adjust his movements to match the tempo of the music, a behavior previously thought only to occur in humans.