Connie Edwards’ new CBC doc explores musical animals — including us


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Almost anyone with a pet has enjoyed it reacting to music at some point — it’s just a cute thing we humans do.

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But all anthropomorphizing aside, watch Snowball the sulphur-crested cockatoo on Youtube dancing along with radio hits, and it’s pretty obvious this bouncy bird is not only processing the beats, but responding to them with precision.

In other words, Snowball seems to understand our human musical language. So is this musicality actually ‘ours’ at all?

Social media pet videos like Snowball’s dance routines got professional singer and Edmonton filmmaker Connie Edwards thinking about the evolutional history and mystery of music.

“All the hair on my body stands up when I hear a certain piece of music,” she explains. “Surely there’s something at work here that predates me and other people.”

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In 2016, she and legendary Edmonton Journal music writer Helen Metalla produced and wrote I Got Rhythm: The Science of Song, a documentary for The Nature of Things that explored music’s complicated role in human evolution and, indeed, in our ongoing survival.

But seeing pets and animals reacting to music in ways we assumed were exclusively human had Edwards wondering how music works across various species.

“There’s something else going on here,” she said to Metalla. “My big question was, I wonder if there’s a biological basis to music.”

The two got to work, and conversations with numerous scientists and artists around the globe formed the backbone of Edwards’ terrific new documentary, The Musical Animal, which premieres at 9 pm Friday on The Nature of Things.

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Soon after, it’ll be available to watch on gem.cbc.ca.

(Edwards, incidentally, is nominated for Best Writing, Factual at the 2022 Canadian Screen Awards for her role as lead writer on the AMI series By Hook or By Cook, hosted by Kelowna motocross legend Bruce Cook. The award winners will be announced April 4.)

Connie Edwards produced, directed and co-wrote (with Helen Metalla) The Musical Animal, premiering March 25 on The Nature of Things.
Connie Edwards produced, directed and co-wrote (with Helen Metalla) The Musical Animal, premiering March 25 on The Nature of Things. Supplied

As it turned out, Edwards wasn’t alone wondering how being sensitive to relative pitch or having beat perception crosses species barriers. And even though serious research into such connections is only about a decade old, it’s growing.

Remember Snowball? Well, since going viral, scientists including cognitive psychologist Ani Patel have noted 14 distinct dance moves, including, excitingly, headbanging in a heavy-metal sense. None of which, the documentary underlines, Snowball does for either mating or survival. He seems to just be doing it for enjoyment.

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Ani Patel, a cognitive psychologist and professor of psychology at Tufts University in Massachusetts, is in CBC's The Musical Animal.
Ani Patel, a cognitive psychologist and professor of psychology at Tufts University in Massachusetts, is in CBC’s The Musical Animal. Supplied

And when tracks he knew were slowed down or sped up in Patel’s research, sure enough, Snowball kept his moves in perfect time.

“Ani Patel says Snowball is closer to a dinosaur than a human,” notes Edwards, “so it’s remarkable that he has those capabilities.”

In evolutionary biological and zoomusicological research, such data is starting to paint an emerging picture, and Edwards’ doc follows this story around the globe.

Over in the Netherlands, we meet cognitive biologist Andrea Ravignani, who studies vocalization rhythms in harbor seals, which he charmingly calls the “cats and dogs of the ocean.” The way seal pups recognize and adjust the timing of their calls in the white spaces of a noisy colony to connect with their parents is telling.

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The hour-long special, narrated by David Suzuki, also examines how zebra finches learn complex songs from their parents, and compares this to how we humans practice. This same pattern of repetition transfers over to whales, which have been recorded singing for 22 hours straight.

Throughout the episode, we find some animals doubling the pitches of notes, which corresponds to our familiar human scale. And we hang out with a chimp named Akira over in Japan who sways and claps to the beat. It even looks at how researchers are investigating the way dogs are set off by certain music — all fascinating stuff.

Edwards especially loved the artist-scientist approach of Canadian zoomusicologist and composer Emily Doolittle, based in Glasgow, who dissects and charts components of birdsong to inspire her own music.

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“What I love about Emily is that she’s letting the birds take the lead. One of the questions I asked her is, ‘Do birds hear their songs as music?’

“And I think that’s such a relevant question because we project our interpretations on animals and anthropomorphize them.

“It was important for me to not have that in the documentary,” she laughs, “except at the beginning where we have the cats playing the piano.

“But there’s actual science here, that some animals quite distant from us seem to have rhythmic perception, and definitely some vocalizations, that are similar in some ways to humans.”

This brings us back to a point Ravignani makes.

“As Andrea says in the piece, what they show us can teach us more about ourselves. Which includes,” Edwards laughs again, “how we humans interpret things in a very human way.”

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PREVIEW

The Musical Animals

Directed and co-written by Connie Edwards

Where: The Nature of Things on CBC, and CBC Gem

When: Premieres 9 pm Friday

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