Chimps refuse to go ape when zookeepers play music, study finds

YORK, England — In a popular children’s book entitled Cha Cha Chimps, a band of merry chimpanzees trade in their pajamas for “boogie woogie” pants and proceed to dance the night away at a local music club.

It’s a popular anthropomorphic fantasy – animals acting and responding just like humans.

But in most cases it’s just that — a fantasy.

A recent study of the effect of music on zoo chimpanzees – our closest evolutionary cousins — is a case in point.  When zookeepers played a variety of rock and classical genres for the simians in their care, the chimps weren’t elated or annoyed; in fact, they didn’t even move.

Apparently, the music failed to register with them at all.

Chimp making funny face
A new study finds that chimpanzees don’t seem to have much interest in the various types of music being played to them in zoos.

The study was directed by Dr. Emma K. Wallace of the Department of Psychology at the University of York in England.  She’s also studied the effect of human music on orangutans, with a similar outcome.

“These results suggest that music is not something that is relevant to captive chimpanzees and are supported by recent work with zoo-housed orangutans that were unable to distinguish music from digitally scrambled noise,” she noted in a York university news release.

“These results also highlight the possibility that music appreciation is something that is a uniquely human trait.”

The study, conducted at the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, had Wallace’s research teams provide the chimps with a “music jukebox” which allowed them to select the kind of music they might want to hear.  Selections from Mozart, Beethoven, Adele and Justin Bieber were among the possible music choices.

However, the chimps failed to show a preference for any of them — and often simply chose silence.

The good news?  Music generated by humans doesn’t appear to have any negative effects on animals in captivity.  And it does have a pleasing effect on their keepers, Wallace found, one reason to commend its usage in zoos.

Wallace’s study is hardly the last word on the topic.  Anecdotal accounts have found that some animals, including elephants, react positively to classical music.  But those animals heard the music – from a small impromptu symphony – live.  That might make a real difference, just as it does with humans.

Studies have also suggested that animals may have their own understanding of music based on their different heart rhythms and other evolutionary differences.

For example, sounds deemed pleasing to cats and set to a musical tempo have been shown to elicit a positive soothing response.  In addition, cows tend to produce more milk when certain kinds of music are played, studies show.

One recent study found that dogs not only enjoy music, but actually seem to prefer reggae and soft rock.

Maybe those chimps heard Wallace’s zoo music after all.  They weren’t indifferent:  they were just waiting for something they could dance to.