How Musical Are Animals? Taking Stock of Zoömusicology’s Prospects
Hollis Taylor

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Abstract: This article surveys zoömusicology, the study of music in animal culture. Discussing the field’s multidisciplinary intellectual history, its current state of research, and future opportunities and challenges, the article draws together ancient and recent literatures on human exceptionalism and the definition of music, and it critiques the role that consciousness, intentionality, language, and function play in discussions of animal capacities, particularly vis-à-vis music. Theories about the origins and evolution of music serve to link cross-cultural comparisons (often produced in the search for music universals) to cross-species comparisons. The article considers birdsong (including early recordings, birdsong transcription, and sonographic analysis), whale song, insect sonification, and other forms of animal music, as well as animals who seem to appreciate human music. It also catalogs related endeavors that bridge musical, ecological, and epistemological issues. Profiles of key zoömusicologists open a window onto the diversity within the field. The article argues for zoömusicologists to participate in performances based on the species they research. One open question is whether fieldwork should be mandatory in zoömusicology or whether relying on other researchers’ recordings and fieldnotes could suffice. In imagining multidisciplinary collaborations, the article explores how zoömusicologists might navigate between the approaches of the sciences, which deal with generalities and replication, and those of the arts and humanities, which incline towards particularities and one-offs. It unsettles the implications of prestige differentials inherent in hard/soft, science/humanities, and human/animal binaries, and proposes that a zoömusicologist-in-residence be appointed for all major science laboratories that study animal sonic phenomena.

How to cite this article: Taylor, Hollis. 2021. “How Musical Are Animals? Taking Stock of Zoömusicology’s Prospects.” Music Research Annual 1: 1–29. https://doi.org/10.48336/d3sy-q224.

About the author: Hollis Taylor is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the Department of Geography and Planning at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. A violinist and composer, zoömusicologist, and ornithologist, she previously held research fellowships at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris, and the University of Technology Sydney. Taylor has an abiding interest in animal aesthetics, and her work confronts and revises the study of birdsong, adding the novel reference point of a musician’s trained ear. She spends months each year in the outback recording Australian songbirds, including the pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis), to whom she has devoted herself since 2005. Taylor performs her (re)compositions of avian songs on violin, and she also rethinks the pied butcherbird repertoire for other human instruments and voices. Supported by a grant from the Australia Council for the Arts, her concerto for recorder virtuoso Genevieve Lacey premiered with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in 2017 and was performed by the London Sinfonia in 2019. Her double CD, Absolute Bird, and her monograph, Is Birdsong Music? Outback Encounters with an Australian Songbird, were both released in 2017. Taylor’s practice also takes in sound and radiophonic arts. She is the author of Post Impressions: A Travel Book for Tragic Intellectuals,in which she used text, audio, and video to document Jon Rose and herself using bows to perform music on fences throughout Australia.

ISSN 2563-7290