A lot of bird lovers think that birds love to dance to music, but in reality, science is very much divided on this as of now. So, do birds like music? We investigate this topic in detail.
Although you’ll see a lot of bird forums and articles telling you that birds love music, there is still debate on both sides with no concrete scientific proof either way.
In fact, the most up to date scientific research shows that birds most likely don’t even hear music the same as us, nor use it as entertainment the way we do.
And just because we like to hear a pretty birdsong doesn’t necessarily mean birds like human music.
In fact, lab studies have confirmed that birds do not hear pitch the same as humans. Meaning if I were to hear someone singing “Happy Birthday” really badly, I’d still recognize the song, no matter if it was sung in a very low or high pitch.
Birds often do not recognize when pitch changes and have a hard time understanding it is still the same song.
And other research shows that birds are actually listening to the sounds of other bird songs for pieces of information, as a way of communicating and not simply for the pleasure of it.
Why Can’t We Know For Sure?
The biggest problem in answering this question is that most research has been done on birdsong itself, the music that birds sing. Not how birds interact with music played for them.
There are also a few problems testing this theory scientifically in the lab.
For example, one of the ways we know humans get a dopamine rush or pleasure from music is that when placed in an MRI or using a similar method of brain scanning, we can see specific parts of the brain light up that tells us the listener is indeed enjoying the music for the sake of enjoying.
This is far more difficult to do with birds. And pretty much impossible in the wild.
Furthermore, music is personal in the way that different music affects individuals differently. What might make you calm may make me aggressive. There are emotions involved in our appreciation of music.
Do Birds Have the Ability to Like Music?
One connection that was thought to be linked to birds having an appreciation of music was their relationship to vocal learning.
“Vocal learning is the ability to modify acoustic and syntactic sounds, acquire new sounds via imitation, and produce vocalizations.” – Wikipedia
And it’s not just birds that can talk. Vocal learning is found to include over 4,000 species of dolphins, songbirds, elephants, seals and walruses.
In order to express vocal learning, specific parts of the brain are required in order to learn sounds and patterns. Why some animals learn and others don’t is still a mystery.
But as far as birds go, it does seem to be a prerequisite to the appreciation of music which may be why the one bird that stands out as having the highest chance of truly liking music is the parrot, a bird capable of vocal learning and an expert at mimicking.
Do Parrots Like Music?
New research is trying to demonstrate that parrots specifically can indeed enjoy music, but not all music. And whether it is all learned responses or true appreciation is still a matter of conjecture.
Dr Franck Péron, from the University of Lincoln conducted a study where he took a pair of African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) and played different types of music and recorded their involvement in the music.
Both parrots bobbed their heads up and down and “danced” to different types of music and even “sang” a few English words.
But the most interesting part of the experiment was that the two birds actually favored different types of music. “The birds clearly showed preferences. One preferred rhythmic music and the other one preferred classical music.”
This demonstrates a personal connection or taste for a type of music. In fact, both birds hated electronic music, the one constant for both birds.
But does this prove parrots like music?
Can Birds Dance?
In order for any animal to dance the way a human does require two different abilities.
First, the animal must be able to detect a rhythmic pattern or beat in external stimuli (music).
Then they must possess the ability to match their pattern of movement to the rhythmic pattern.
This ability is also called entrainment.
Entrainment is the aligning of physical movements to timed sounds, or in simple terms “dancing to a beat”. And for the longest time research suggested that only humans could actually dance in the way we know the dance.
But it seems some birds actually do dance. Or do they?
And if birds do dance, wouldn’t that strongly correlate that birds do indeed like music?
Researchers at Harvard University recently conducted an experiment with an African gray parrot named Alex and a sulfur-crested cockatoo named Snowball after seeing Snowball’s video on YouTube which currently has close to seven million views.
The researchers contacted the owners and went to see Snowball personally to conduct detailed experiments. During this time the researchers noted that Snowball did indeed seem to dance.
What made this so different in the respect of demonstrating that Snowball could indeed dance was that the researchers slowed down and sped up the music and Snowball frequently adjusted the tempo of his dancing to match the new beat of the tune.
The ability to hear the beat and then follow it as it changed points directly to the bird listening closely to the music, understanding the beat, and then using motor skills to dance to it.
One thing researchers pointed out was that both birds had an excellent ability to mimic the sound.
On The Flip Side
Contrary research suggests that all of this dancing is simply mimicking or being trained to act when a certain song is played. (ten Cate and Vos, 1999)
Since many parrots are brought up by their owners in captivity, they are imprinting what their “parents” are doing. This of course happens in humans as well.
So when you listen to music, the parrot is recognizing that you’re happy and bobbing or tapping or in some way keeping to a beat. The bird will mimic your actions and learn what you like most by your reaction to its movements. Just as a person would.
Some bird owners give treats when their pets do something like this. But this is simply a learned reaction in order to get a tasty treat, not dancing because it feels good.
And since dancing and feeling the beat go hand in hand, it makes it that much more difficult to study if birds are really dancing just for enjoyment. Or if it is for the owner’s enjoyment.
In addition, parrots are seen in their natural habitats head bobbing when communicating with their own species. So parrots are already naturally conditioned to head bobbing behavior whereas other songbirds like finches are not. Hence no head bobbing finches.
There is still no concrete scientific proof that birds have musical tastes or can even dance without being trained or coerced in some way. For all we know, all our music might just be noise for them.
But it does seem like if one question can be proven, the other is most likely to be proven as well.
It also seems that all of this comes down to vocal learning and how a species’ brain is wired and develops. So perhaps one day science will prove once and for all that our feathered friends can boogie to their favorite tunes.
And not just birds since vocal learning includes other songbird species and not just parrots, then there are dolphins, elephants, walruses, and seals.
Who knows, maybe someday humans will be flocking to aquariums for dance lessons!