On YouTube, video of a cockatoo dancing to the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody,” is nearing four million views. While it may be just another amusing interlude in most people’s lives, that dancing cockatoo is being deeply studied and discussed in the hallowed halls of neuroscience. Before the video of the dancing cockatoo named “Snowball,” scientists were leaning toward the thinking that moving to musical rhythms was a uniquely human behavior. After discovering Snowball on YouTube, Harvard scientists studied thousands of the site’s videos in a quest for dancing animals. While there were several dancing parrots, no dogs or cats were “convincingly” moving in time to music.
Such a discovery led neuroscientist Aniruddh Patel to conclude that in terms of language and musical aspects of the brain, humans were more like parrots or vice-versa, depending on which came first. Patel became somewhat of a pioneer in the study of music and the brain after abandoning research on the social behavior of – ants? In his research he discovered that stroke patients who had trouble with language perception also had trouble perceiving “musical grammar” in terms of scales, chords and keys. And since humans are thought to have communicated with music since Neanderthal times, such discoveries may lead to new therapies for conditions caused by brain damage or deterioration. There are said to be Alzheimer’s patients who cannot remember their spouses but can remember song lyrics.
Studying bird brains is critical to this field because other species in the wild kingdom aren’t known to have music and vocal language. Chimpanzees don’t dance and since they don’t dance they’re no friends of musically inclined neuroscientists. Colleagues of Patel are also making the case that humans were communicating in a musical sense, with tone and pitch long before they had words. Ancient rowers and chain gangs used music and movement to facilitate their work. All of this could be good science or just another excuse for geeks to watch YouTube and listen to music while working.
One of Snowball’s many videos