Making music, man and beast

Biologists seem to be catching up with two views that have long been intuitive to many people: that music is as old as man, and that we share an innate love of it with other living creatures.

"The undersea songs of humpback whales are similar in structure to bird and human songs and prove that these marine mammals are inveterate composers," says an article entitled "Biology and Music: The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music" in the latest issue of Science magazine.

It continues: "Humpback whale songs are constructed according to laws that are strikingly similar to those adopted by human composers....

"Whale songs fall between the length of a modern ballad and that of a movement of a symphony. Perhaps they have chosen the same length of performance as we have because ... they have a similar attention span to humans."

The songs even follow a structure popular with human composers, the "ABA" form: A theme is stated (A), elaborated on (B), and then returned to (A).

Birds have been found to keep the same melody but change keys. They use the same rhythms found in human music, and the same scales (chromatic and pentatonic).

Man's involvement in music is prehistoric. The finding of sophisticated flutes fashioned up to 53,000 years ago suggests "humans have been making music for several hundred thousand years."

All three species have found a need to sing their songs. "The similarities among human music, bird song, and whale song tempt one to speculate that ... there is a universal music awaiting discovery," the article concludes.

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