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Birds experience the same emotions from birdsong as we do from music: a study

Jennifer Van Evra

We know that music can stir emotions in human beings, but scientists at Emory University have found that the same may hold true for our feathered friends.

It’s clear that birds communicate through song, but in a study titled Birdsong: is it music to their ears?, the Emory researchers say their sweet sounds amount to far more than idle chatter, because they activate the same kinds of neural responses as music does in human brains.

"We found that the same neural reward system is activated in female birds in the breeding state that are listening to male birdsong, and in people listening to music that they like," Sarah Earp said in an interview with Emory University's eScience Commons. Earp is the undergraduate who co-authored the study with Emory neuroscientist Donna Maney.

The study found that male birds listening to others males’ song, however, produced a completely different result: the response in their brains was similar to that of people listening to discordant and unpleasant music, like you would hear in a horror movie.

The time of year can also play a role in how the music is both used and received. Non-breeding male and female sparrows use song to establish dominance, while in breeding season, a male singing to a female is usually a sign of courting. A male singing to another male during breeding season, however, is likely saying back off.

Females also showed a heightened response to the male birds’ singing during breeding season, but not at other times.

"The neural response to birdsong appears to depend on social context, which can be the case with humans as well," Earp said in the interview. "Both birdsong and music elicit responses not only in brain regions associated directly with reward, but also in interconnected regions that are thought to regulate emotion. That suggests that they both may activate evolutionarily ancient mechanisms that are necessary for reproduction and survival."

So how did Earp land on this particular subject? Ironically, the student — who is both a viola player and studying medicine — picked up on the age-old debate about whether birdsong is music when two human males, a guest composer and the director of Emory’s Neuroscience and Behavioural Biology program, disagreed in her class, "The Musical Brain."

"It turned into this huge debate, and each of them seemed to define music differently,” she recounted to eScience Commons.

Earp said that she hopes, one day, researchers will be able to study the musical interactions between other animals such as whales, which also use song to communicate — and have brains that are more similar to those in humans.