A bird listening to birdsong may experience some of the same emotions as a human listening to music, suggests a new study on white-throated sparrows, published in Frontiers of Evolutionary Neuroscience.
"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," says Sarah Earp, who led the research as an undergraduate at Emory University.
For male birds listening to another male's song, it was a different story: They had an amygdala response that looks similar to that of people when they hear discordant, unpleasant music.
The study, co-authored by Emory neuroscientist Donna Maney, is the first to compare neural responses of listeners in the long-standing debate over whether birdsong is music.
"Scientists since the time of Darwin have wondered whether birdsong and music may serve similar purposes, or have the same evolutionary precursors," Earp notes. "But most attempts to compare the two have focused on the qualities of the sound themselves, such as melody and rhythm."
Earp's curiosity was sparked while an honors student at Emory, majoring in both neuroscience and music. She took "The Musical Brain" course developed by Paul Lennard, director of Emory's Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology program, which brought in guest lecturers from the fields of neuroscience and music.
"During one class, the guest speaker was a composer and he said that he thought that birdsong is like music, but Dr. Lennard thought it was not," Earp recalls. "It turned into this huge debate, and each of them seemed to define music differently. I thought it was interesting that you could take one question and have two conflicting answers that are both right, in a way, depending on your perspective and how you approach the question."
As a senior last year, Earp received a grant from the Scholars
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