Can animals recognise a rhythm? Chris Packham is finding out…

The nature presenter is looking into rock 'n' roll animals for his new ear-opening show, The Animal Symphony

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We know that Chris Packham has an enduring love of animals. We know, too, that alongside that passion sits a love of rock music.

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Occasionally the two collide, such as the moment recently when his girlfriend was forced to retrieve a spider from the wall of his New Forest home while the Clash blasted out on his music system.

“She very correctly pointed out that spiders are very sensitive to vibrations and accused me of trying to torture it with punk rock,” says Packham. The spider was relocated to the safety of an upstairs room.

In a new documentary, The Animal Symphony, Packham explores the relationship between animals and music. There are no spiders involved, but his poodles, Itchy and Scratchy, make an appearance, as do a group of starlings, a sea lion named Ronan, and a cockatoo called Snowball.

You might want to check out the rock ’n’ roll antics of these two internet sensations – the shapes that Snowball throws to Michael Jackson’s Black or White are a particular treat.

“They are not responding to it, they are predicting it, which must serve some biological purpose,” says Packham. “When you see a sea lion swimming though the water they have that lovely undulating rhythm. It may be that being able to stick to a rhythm like that optimises their ability to move.”

But what happens if you take the sounds that these animals, including Packham’s own poodles, recognise, embed them within a new musical composition – for example Nitin Sawhney’s latest symphony – and play that piece of music back to them? Do their ears prick up?

First, let’s hear what Itchy and Scratchy groove to. “They ‘sing’ to the Lightning Seeds song Pure,” says Packham. “I know it’s anthropomorphic to say this, but there’s a sense of joy involved. They get very, very excited and bounce off one another. I can see that they’re enjoying it.” 

So did they pick out elements of the song that were incorporated in Sawhney’s new work? “They just went to sleep,” laughs Packham. “It was hysterical. We put it on and they were just lying down snoring.”

But the results with the other musical guinea pigs were more positive. “With Ronan and Snowball the track came on and they were looking and listening and within a short time they found the beat and started doing their thing. The starlings also responded, which was great.

“In their case they don’t seem to like rock or pop, but they love Bach and Beethoven – and they will sing along to it. Perhaps they associate it with going to a secure roost or getting a meal, but there is a positive emotional response in these animals to music.”

So perhaps it’s just that Packham’s poodles need a more varied musical diet? At the moment, the theme tunes to Antiques Roadshow and Springwatch are high up on their Doggie Island Discs.

But there’s one that Packham is desperate for them to tire of. “Every couple of years I will watch The World at War again. Some of the episodes are devastatingly upsetting and distressing and I get to the end and the theme music comes on and my dogs start howling and having a party. So I’m feeling pretty bad at having seen all these atrocities and they’re jumping for joy. That’s a bit uncomfortable.”  

Which animals are natural performers? Chris Packham reveals three…

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Nightingales

We now know that young male nightingales, when they are in Africa during winter, will rehearse parts of the song that they then perform the next spring in the UK. They don’t do the full song in the winter — they just produce phrases.

What they’re doing is integrating new lines and new aspects to the song. We know that males with the most complex songs rear more chicks, so there’s a relationship between song complexity and duration and breeding success.

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Humpback Whales

The males, we assume, are singing to attract mates and proclaim their hierarchy. They have very long songs that can go on for two hours. Different social groups have different songs. One of them might be doing hard rock, another is doing acid house, another is doing disco — they’ve all got their own flavours.

But because we now have the technology to listen to these animals we discovered that one male on the eastern side of Australia came up with a completely unique song. It was like he had discovered techno. And immediately that song spread like wildfire through his social group and subsequently the song has spread right the way across the Pacific. It was like a viral hit. And every time other whales heard this they must have thought to themselves, ‘Blimey, that’s fantastic! I love that. I’m going to integrate that into my repertoire.’ 

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Chimpanzees

What we see is that male chimps in the wild will beat on trees and they’ll have a signature beat which we assume is to proclaim dominance. In Edinburgh Zoo there’s a 19-year-old male called Kindia who uses a metal tube in the chimp house as a drum and now does these ear-splitting solos. He’s the John Bonham of the chimp world.

There’s no doubt he’s using it to intimidate the others. There’s an enormous amount of energy that goes into it.

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The Animal Symphony is on Tuesday 6th DEcember at 9.00pm on Sky Arts