A Chimpanzee Has Rattled Off a Drum Solo

A Chimpanzee Has Rattled Off a Drum Solo
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Barney was a fairly normal chimpanzee. A 24-year-old, low-ranking member of a group of five adult male chimpanzees raised at the Biomedical Primate Research Centre in the Netherlands, he generally showed stereotypical behaviors: he played, he banged bottles, he climbed trees. Then, one January day, he walked away from his group and sat down outside, placing an upturned bucket between his feet. He then rattled off the only-known spontaneous, unsolicited chimpanzee drum solo. Primatologists at the center were taken completely by surprise. With no camera nearby, they recorded the five-minute performance with a simple voice recorder.


This happened more than a decade ago, yet Barney's performance has only just been revealed in the journal Scientific Reports.

In the wild, chimpanzees "drum" to communicate, but this isn't anything like what Buddy Rich would bang out. Male chimps might grab a nearby tree with their arms and furiously smack the trunk with their feet, hooting and hollering in the process. The act resembles a child throwing a tantrum. The purpose is not to make music; it's to make noise.

So then what was Barney doing? Could he have been playing rudimentary music?

The researchers behind the discovery can't be precisely sure, but they can say that the incident was both "intentional" and "decontextualized." Barney produced more than 685 drumbeats spread over eleven sequences for almost five minutes, remaining focused the entire time. Moreover, the drumming did not seem to serve any communicative purpose, as all of the other chimpanzees were inside and out of earshot.

An analysis of the drumming also revealed that, in five of the sequences, Barney maintained a distinct and even tempo.

"The beating in these five sequences was not only regular, but was even extremely so on occasions, with an average tempo of 257 beats per minute. This pace is close to human tempo for rhythmic music," the researchers write.

With Barney's drum solo now enshrined in the scientific literature, chimpanzees join whales and certain species of birds in the ranks of animals that may be capable of creating and enjoying something resembling music.

"Barney’s performance confirms that the chimpanzee, our closest relative, could indeed be capable of drumming like a human," the researchers say. "Our data are probably the first strong evidence of an evolutionary link between wild beating in chimpanzees and our own musical origins."

Source: Dufour, V. et al. Chimpanzee drumming: a spontaneous performance with characteristics of human musical drumming. Sci. Rep. 5, 11320; doi: 10.1038/srep11320 (2015).

(Top Image: Camille Martin)

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