Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Goodbye and thanks for the Bach

Any playing of rap music will be considered a violation of the Federal Mammal Protection Act--When my wife was working on her dissertation in marine biology, she had two Atlantic bottlenose dolphins as experiment subjects (sonar echolocation) in a large tank at the Long Marine Lab at UC Santa Cruz. They were lovely animals and I suggested an experiment since we had the animals around anyway and they get bored easily. We would put underwater speakers in the tank, play music and see what happened. Would they like the symmetry of Mozart? How about the fugues of Bach? Perhaps a bit of Little Richard or even Phillip Glass? Elvis, of course. I was curious to see if they heard music as music—rhythms and melody—or just noise, and if they did, what did they like?

It turns out that experiment is not so weird. According to the results of two experiments about to be presented at a meeting of the Accoustical Society of America in Minneapolis in two weeks, dolphins do hear and understand music, and can even play some on a computer. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the experiment involved the theme song from the television show “Batman.” They didn’t even try the John Williams theme from the movie. Well, the experiments were done at Disney's Epcot, which may account for the peculiar taste.

The experiments mean that humans are not the only species that can process music. Dolphins can too. Heidi Harley (is that a great name or what?) of the New College of Florida took a male bottlenose put it in front of a hydrophone and played six different 14 kilohertz, 4 second rhythms. She then rewarded the dolphin every time it matched a certain behavior to a certain rhythm—wave a fin, toss a ball, whatever. Another male was trained to produce similar rhythms using a special pneumatic device connected to a computer that played sounds. Particular sounds were reinforced with objects, in this case, a Batman doll when the dolphin played one short and one long sound, as in BAT-MANNNNNNN! Not exactly the “Ode to Joy,” but it’s a start.

Harley doesn’t think the dolphins understand music, just variations in rhythms, and that still leaves my experiment unfulfilled. If you play “Johnnny-Be-Good” and the largetto from Mahler’s Fifth, would they prefer one to another. If you played rap music or hip-hop, would they kill somebody? I need funding.

[Thank you Carol]

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