How bad is western music? Chimps in a study published by the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition preferred silence - yet they liked music from Africa.

And music from India. What is the reason for that?

Music in the east is structured differently, notation is everything from Swara Kalana to Chôngganbo, but African music is not all that different. Why would chimps like it more? It may be tempo. The current findings say this may be the first to show that they display a preference for particular rhythmic patterns. If the authors aren't sure, none of the rest of the world can be.

"Past research has focused only on Western music and has not addressed the very different acoustic features of non-Western music. While nonhuman primates have previously indicated a preference among music choices, they have consistently chosen silence over the types of music previously tested," said study co-author Frans de Waal, PhD, of Emory University.  

"I like Dutch symphonic death metal". Actually, chimpanzees like Tara prefer silence to Western music. They do like world music, such as African and Indian. Don't tell Paul Simon, or he may do another album. Photo courtesy of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University

When African and Indian music was played near their large outdoor enclosures, the chimps spent significantly more time in areas where they could best hear the music. When Japanese music was played, they were more likely to be found in spots where it was more difficult or impossible to hear the music. The African and Indian music in the experiment had extreme ratios of strong to weak beats, whereas the Japanese music had regular strong beats, which is also typical of Western music.

"Chimpanzees may perceive the strong, predictable rhythmic patterns as threatening, as chimpanzee dominance displays commonly incorporate repeated rhythmic sounds such as stomping, clapping and banging objects," said de Waal.

Sixteen adult chimps in two groups participated in the experiment at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University. Over 12 consecutive days for 40 minutes each morning, the groups were given the opportunity to listen to African, Indian or Japanese music playing on a portable stereo near their outdoor enclosure. Another portable stereo not playing any music was located at a different spot near the enclosure to rule out behavior that might be associated with an object rather than the music.

The different types of music were at the same volume but played in random order. Each day, researchers observed the chimps and recorded their location every two minutes with handwritten notes. They also videotaped the activity in the enclosure. The chimps' behavior when the music was played was compared to their behavior with no music.

"Chimpanzees displaying a preference for music over silence is compelling evidence that our shared evolutionary histories may include favoring sounds outside of both humans' and chimpanzees' immediate survival cues," said lead author Morgan Mingle, BA, of Emory and Southwestern University in Austin. "Our study highlights the importance of sampling across the gamut of human music to potentially identify features that could have a shared evolutionary root."