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Saturday, May 2, 2009


Music is going to the birds - literally.

Snowball, a sulphur-crested cockatoo from Indiana is among 14 documented species of parrots to have rhythm. It's scientifically proven. In two studies recently published in Current Biology, scientists have concluded that these dancing birds are clearly able to synchronize their head bobs and leg movements to throbbing music.

What do they like to listen to you ask? Boulez? Babbitt? Stockhausen? Berio?

Snowball seems to have a preference for the Backstreet Boys, Queen, and Steve Nicks. He (or she?) has even performed on Dave Letterman. More than two and a half million people have viewed the following YouTube video alone...

Noted neurologist, classical pianist, and author Oliver Sacks had contended in the first edition of his book "Musicophilia" that only humans appear to have the ability to synchronize movement and rhythm. But after seeing videos of Snowball dancing away, he has revised his opinion and updated subsequent editions of his best selling book accordingly. Quoted by the Boston Globe in a front page article (5/1/09) on this subject, Sacks said, "Clearly, moving in synchrony is an essential and universal part of human culture. My own suspicion is [dancing] may become selected and reinforced in our species, because it's a biological advantage to bond people... It may be this thing which arose as a side effect of our speech."

That makes sense. I have often wondered why music is so pervasive in human culture. It is obviously part of our hard-wired human neurology, yet at the same time the skill appears to be completely useless in terms of an evolutionary trait of natural selection. Why have composers and musicians not died out? They don't contribute anything essential toward survival.

Perhaps if Snowball took a college-level course in music appreciation, and was exposed to the high-culture art of Beethoven, Brahms, and Bach, his/her taste in music might broaden and mature. On the other hand, perhaps the Backstreet Boys is the best humanity can offer, and anything else pales in comparison.

Whatever the case, Snowball seems to have a good agent, and I know musicans who would give anything for that amount of fame or celebrity.