A cockatoo named Snowball and the dance of language

New research suggests that vocal mimicry and the ability to feel a beat both draw on the same mental abilities.

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That language should be found to be related to music seems absolutely no surprise. Indeed, it seems self-evident. That language may be related specifically to dance and to rhythm, well, that is a surprise. But that seems to be the conclusion of two teams of academic researchers whose work recently appeared in the scientific journal Current Biology. At the center of both studies is Snowball, a sulfur-crested cockatoo who has demonstrated an ability to dance. Specifically, he has shown himself (on a much-viewed YouTube video) able to move in time to the music of the Backstreet Boys' hit song "Everybody."

The world of dumb pet tricks is so vast that most of us have never noticed that one thing pets generally don't do is dance. Language and dance, at some level of competence, at least, are human universals. But although some nonhuman species, notably parrots, are capable of vocal mimicry, they haven't been found to be able to move in time to a beat. "Spontaneous entrainment" is the scientists' term for what we of the laity refer to as "feeling the beat" or maybe just "toe-tapping."

That's why Snowball's bravura performance to the Backstreet Boys changes everything. Language and dancing may seem very different – one seems mostly mental and the other mostly physical. But the researchers' work seems to bear out the idea that the vocal mimicry involved in learning to talk draws on the same mental abilities as learning to feel a beat.

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Here's how Adena Schachner of Harvard University, one of the researchers, explained it to the Harvard Gazette: "In both vocal mimicry and entrainment, you're taking in auditory input, and constantly monitoring not only your output but also the sound input. This allows you to fix your output in real time, to better resemble or line up with what you hear.... So it seems plausible that vocal mimicry and keeping a beat might rely on some of the same mechanisms."

Both studies are evidence of the YouTube video-sharing website as a resource for scholarly research. Dr. Schachner spent a lot of time on YouTube for her research, and it got a bit old after the first couple of hours, she reported.

But her in-depth analysis turned up 33 videos of critters able to dance like Snowball – 14 species of parrot and one elephant. Schachner's research also involved Alex, the much-studied African grey parrot, whose demise, as the research project was under way, warranted an obituary in The New York Times.

To make sure that Snowball was really moving to the beat intentionally, and not just coincidentally, Aniruddh Patel of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego and his colleagues varied the tempo of the music.

Snowball was able to adjust.

When the music is slow, he sways his entire body like a pendulum. When the music speeds up, his owner, Irena Schulz (one of Dr. Patel's coauthors) says, Snowball "understands to adjust his movements." And when the beat gets so fast he doesn't have time for his typical can-can moves, "he'll keep his foot lifted up and he'll just, like, do his wave, he'll wave his foot."

Because an ability to dance wouldn't do a parrot much good in the wild, Schachner speculated that it must be an evolutionary byproduct of something else. That something else might presumably be vocal mimicry. And the human ability to keep time with music may likewise be just a byproduct, too.

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