Primatologist Dian Fossey famously studied vocalizations in gorillas. For my money, she produced the greatest piece of evidence that these great apes and humans descended from a shared ancestor at some point in the distant past: the most common form of communication in gorillas is belching. (credit the notion to Steve Mirsky, cited in below!)
Of course, even with the eructating similarities between us, Fossey’s findings showed the gorillas a bit more elegant than we. Unlike the uncouth emanations of unrefined humans, the gorilla’s belch is “a deep prolonged rumble rather like a soft belching sound” that they actually use to transmit info to other individuals. The apes have developed a multitude of communicative vocalizations; in the case of the belch, the sound projects contentment from the leader of the troop, which indicates the group can relax.
These vocal spewings are not the only parallel between distant primate cousins. Turns out gorillas like to sing, too.
Scientists knew that chimpanzees and bonobos produced specific vocalizations while eating. A 2016 study managed to determine that gorillas also produce specific emanations during the ingestion process. And the sounds were musical, ranging from humming to singing.
Like the belches before them, humming and singing sound slightly different than they do for humans, but they are clearly musical in nature. In some instances, only the silverback would hum, which indicated he was eating, and signaled to the troop that they should also partake in nourishment. Sometimes multiple individuals would sing the same melody. Fascinatingly, different types of food seemed to prompt different songs! It seems gorillas have multiple songs of their people.
Monitoring the eating habits of gorilla troops is notoriously difficult. To solve the problem researchers developed a sneaky approach, albeit creepy in an Uncanny-Valley sort of way. They infiltrated troops with spy-robot-gorillas!
Another study probed the effects of music on gorillas at the Buffalo Zoo. Researchers played three different types of sound to the gorillas: classical music via Chopin; rock music via Muse; and sounds from a rainforest.
Interestingly, certain individuals noticed or “preferred” the classical or rock more than others, hinting that gorillas might be able to display fondness. One must question the selection of Muse to represent the rock world. Not the worst choice in the universe, but come on. These gorillas should at least listen to Blur! One gorilla refused to orient herself toward the speakers playing Muse. Well done, Lily!
The most interesting conclusion from the study showed that the nature sounds had a much greater calming effect on the gorillas than classical, rock, or silence. Nothing can beat nature!
With the recent passing of Michael Nesmith, a member of the Monkees, the eternal 1960s pop group, I would be derelict in my duties if I left out an example pertaining to monkeys.
Before you decide to write to me, let’s declare that monkeys are not apes. Apesongs sounds better than Primatesongs, so I went with it. Monkeys have tails; apes do not have tails. Still, monkeys are primates, too, so let’s show some love.
It turns out monkeys love drumming! Primatologists studied the brains of macaques as they drummed, which they often do to show aggression. When they pounded out the beats, the parts of their brains linked to communication lit up like a Neil Peart solo. The implication is that vocal and non-vocal forms of communication may share a common origin.
There’s a reason we love rhythm and beats. Communication!
Further Reading and Exploration
Gorillas Hum and Sing While They Eat to Say, “Do Not Disturb” – Scientific American
Food-Associated Calling in Gorillas (Gorilla g. gorilla) in the Wild – PLOS ONE
Zoo-Raised Gorillas Prefer Forest Sounds Over Chopin – Inside Science
The effects of auditory enrichment on gorillas by Susan Margulis
Monkey Drumming Suggests the Origin of Music – LiveScience
Michael Nesmith, Monkees Singer-Songwriter, Dead at 78 – RollingStone