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Can Rhesus Monkeys Detect the Beat in Music?
Last updated 2013.02.07 |
  1. Paper - What is the research about?
  2. Press Release - What are the main findings?
  3. Media Contact - Who to contact for more information?
  4. Related Photos and Video Material
  5. Related Publications
  6. Media attention


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See overview of media attention on Google and PLOS ONE.

Press Release

Rhesus Monkeys Cannot Hear the Beat in Music

Beat induction, the ability to pick up regularity – the beat – from a varying rhythm, is not an ability that rhesus monkeys possess. These are the findings of researchers from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), which have recently been published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

The research conducted by Henkjan Honing, professor of Music Cognition at the UvA, and a team of neurobiologists headed by Hugo Merchant from the UNAM, shows that rhesus monkeys cannot detect the beat in music, although they are able to detect rhythmic groups in music. The results of this research support the view that beat induction is a uniquely human, cognitive skill and contribute to a further understanding of the biology and evolution of human music.

Monkey versus man
It seems a trivial skill: children that clap along with a song, musicians that tap their foot to the music, or a stage full of line dancers that dance in synchrony. And in way, it is indeed trivial that most people can easily pick up a regular pulse from the music or judge whether the music speeds up or slows down. However, the realisation that perceiving this regularity in music allows us to dance and make music together makes it less trivial a phenomenon.

Previous research showed that not only adult humans, but also newborn babies can detect the beat in music. This proved that beat induction is congenital and can therefore not be learnt. In their experiments with rhesus monkeys, the researchers used the same stimuli and experimental paradigms from previous research conducted on humans and babies. They measured electrical brain signals using electrodes while the participants were listening.

Confirmation of hypotheses
These research results are in line with the vocal learning hypothesis, which suggests that only species who can mimic sounds share the ability of beat induction. These species include several bird and mammal species, although the ability to mimic sounds is only weakly developed, or missing entirely, in nonhuman primates.

In addition, the results support the dissociation hypothesis, which claims that there is a dissociation between rhythm perception and beat perception. This new research suggests that humans share rhythm perception (or duration-based timing) with other primates, while beat induction (or beat-based timing) is only present in specific species (including humans and a selected group of bird species), arguably as a result of convergent evolution. (Source: UvA English/Dutch.)

Media Contact
Henkjan Honing, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands: E
Hugo Merchant, National Autonomous University of Mexico: E

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Full Reference
Honing H, Merchant H, Háden GP, Prado L, Bartolo R (2012). Rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) detect rhythmic groups in music, but not the beat. PLoS ONE, 7(12): e51369. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0051369

It was recently shown that rhythmic entrainment, long considered a human-specific mechanism, can be demonstrated in a selected group of bird species, and, somewhat surprisingly, not in more closely related species such as nonhuman primates. This observation supports the vocal learning hypothesis that suggests rhythmic entrainment to be a by-product of the vocal learning mechanisms that are shared by several bird and mammal species, including humans, but that are only weakly developed, or missing entirely, in nonhuman primates. To test this hypothesis we measured auditory event-related potentials (ERPs) in two rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta), probing a well-documented component in humans, the mismatch negativity (MMN) to study rhythmic expectation. We demonstrate for the first time in rhesus monkeys that, in response to infrequent deviants in pitch that were presented in a continuous sound stream using an oddball paradigm, a comparable ERP component can be detected with negative deflections in early latencies (Experiment 1). Subsequently we tested whether rhesus monkeys can detect gaps (omissions at random positions in the sound stream; Experiment 2) and, using more complex stimuli, also the beat (omissions at the first position of a musical unit, i.e. the ‘downbeat’; Experiment 3). In contrast to what has been shown in human adults and newborns (using identical stimuli and experimental paradigm), the results suggest that rhesus monkeys are not able to detect the beat in music. These findings are in support of the hypothesis that beat induction (the cognitive mechanism that supports the perception of a regular pulse from a varying rhythm) is species-specific and absent in nonhuman primates. In addition, the findings support the auditory timing dissociation hypothesis, with rhesus monkeys being sensitive to rhythmic grouping (detecting the start of a rhythmic group), but not to the induced beat (detecting a regularity from a varying rhythm).

Full Paper

Photo and Video Material
  1. Rhesus monkey (Macaca Mulatta):


  2. Rhesus monkey with the positions of the EEG-electrodes marked:

    Drawing courtesy of Roos Holleman [jpg]; Drawing only: [tiff].

  3. Dutch Documentary on beat induction in humans and monkeys (©2011 VPRO/NTR):

    For more information and copyright see the website of Labyrint [in Dutch].

    (N.B. The remark of the voice-over on the experimental paradigm used is not correct ('[de resusapen] reageren door bij een maatverandering aan hun drinkfles te zuigen'). Both stimuli and experimental paradigm were identical to that used in the newborn study from 2009; the monkeys simply listened.)

  4. Interview with Mathieu, the first scientifically documented case of a beat-deaf human (©2011 VPRO/NTR):

    For more information see the Music Matters Blog.

  5. What makes us musical animals: TED-talk on beat induction and relative pitch:

    For more information see interview [in Dutch].

  6. Additional footage on a related study testing beat induction in newborns (using the same stimuli and experimental paradigm) can be found here.

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Related Publications

Honing H, Merchant H, Háden GP, Prado L, Bartolo R (2012). Rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) detect rhythmic groups in music, but not the beat. PLoS ONE, 7(12): e51369. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0051369

Honing H (2012) Without it no music: beat induction as a fundamental musical trait. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1252(1), 85-91. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2011.06402.x

Honing H, & Ploeger A (2012). Cognition and the Evolution of Music: Pitfalls and Prospects. Topics in Cognitive Science, 4, 513-524. doi: 10.1111/j.1756-8765.2012.01210.x

Merchant H, Zarco W, Perez O, Prado L, Bartolo R (2011) Measuring time with different neural chronometers during a synchronization-continuation task. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(49), 19784-19789. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1112933108

Winkler I, Háden G, Ladinig O, Sziller I, Honing H (2009) Newborn infants detect the beat in music. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106:2468-2471. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0809035106

Zarco W, Merchant H, Prado L, Mendez JC (2009) Subsecond timing in primates: comparison of interval production between human subjects and Rhesusmonkeys. Journal of neurophysiology, 102(6), 3191-3202. doi: 10.1152/jn.00066.2009

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