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Dancing With A Cockatoo

Aniruddh D. Patel‘s research focuses on how the brain processes music and language, especially what the similarities and differences between the two reveal about each other and about the brain itself. Patel has served on the Executive Committee of the Society for Music Perception and Cognition and is currently the Esther J. Burnham Senior Fellow at The Neurosciences Institute. Patel’s book, Music, Language, and the Brain, challenges the widespread belief that music and language are processed independently. This fabulous book won a Deem-Taylor Award From ASCAP and its ideas are explored in a PBS special The Music Instinct which airs tonight. Below learn about Patel’s experience with Snowball, the dancing Cockatoo.

Sometimes science takes you in strange directions. I study how human brains processes music, but last year I found myself in a living room in suburban Indiana, dancing with a sulphur-crested cockatoo named Snowball.

I had been captivated by his YouTube debut, where he seemed to really be dancing to the beat of human music.

The ability to synchronize movements to a musical beat was long thought to be uniquely human, but Snowball’s dancing suggested otherwise. Fortunately I was able to collaborate with his owners and conduct a controlled study, showing that he really did sense a beat and move in time with it, even when no humans were dancing with him. Crucially, when we slowed down or sped up his favorite song (“Everybody”, by the Back Street Boys), he spontaneously adjusted his dance tempo accordingly, just as a human would.

This discovery (recently published in Current Biology) has implications for debates over the evolution of human music, and has opened my mind to the complexity of music perception by nonhuman animals.

Our work with Snowball appears in the PBS documentary “The Music Instinct“, which airs on June 24th.

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