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Introduction (to the issue and to zoomusicology)

Dario Martinelli

The release of this special issue of TRANS on zoomusicology marks a little historical event. Indeed, this is the very first time in musicological history that a scientific journal decides to devote an entire issue to the topic of animal music. In several cases, a few of which I had the honour to represent, zoomusicological essays have been published and discussed within wider contexts, such as conference proceedings, regular ¯ i.e. non-thematic ¯ issues of various journals, essay compilations, and even special ¯ i.e. thematic ¯ issues of journals (e.g., focusing on things like “new trends in musicology”). However, never was zoomusicology the topic, the actual focus of one particular issue.

This means very much to me and, in this introduction to the issue, I shall take the liberty to explain why. I became interested in zoomusicology in 1996, while in search for a topic for my master dissertation in musicology. My supervisor and mentor, Prof. Gino Stefani, aware of my intention to combine my interests for music and animal behaviour, suggested me the reading of the capital François Bernard Mâche's Musique, Myth, Nature. That was it: I immediately fell in love with the topic, and to collect material and ideas. Except that, no one around seemed to have any knowledge about it, not to mention how scarcely they found such an idea even remotely acceptable.

Right after defending my PhD thesis, my first book, How musical is a whale? Towards a theory of zoomusicology, was published in 2002. Six years had passed since I dealing with zoomusicology, but the picture had not changed too much, and I could not help being sarcastic about how little people knew about my beloved research area. Here is a significant excerpt from that book:

It is always a bit annoying for me to write about zoomusicology on a computer and to see that the Microsoft Word spellchecker underlines in red every single key-word of such a study, e.g., zoomusicology, zoosemiotics, biocentrism, ethology, and so on. It is annoying for two reasons: on one hand, it reveals that these terms are still little known by most people, at least by Microsoft's team, thus there is a big need of more knowledge. On the other hand, it seems that even very popular terms, such as ethology, which was coined in 1762 by the Academie Française des Sciences, are not yet acknowledged as “autonomous” concepts, not depending, for instance, from zoology or biology (Martinelli, 2002: 5).

Events turned much more after (I like to think “thanks also to”) that book, and I became increasingly relaxed. I still fight with my Word program (I had to manually update the vocabulary, so that now the key-words are not underlined anymore), but certainly I am not anymore in the uncomfortable position of having to justify my work (and the words used to describe it) all the time. I took the nice habit of checking the impact of zoomusicology on both the scientific and the every-day talks, by googling the very word, and to my great surprise and satisfaction, we went from less than 20 entries in 2002, to the 537 of 2005 and the 4040 of 2007. The reasons for satisfaction are at least three. Firstly, not all of the entries have direct or indirect relation with myself. This was a legitimate concern, as I have a strong tendency to spread information via the internet, plus I operate in a country, Finland, with an exceptionally high level of informatisation, meaning that most of my lectures or presentations are advertised on the web. In typing the word “zoomusicology” on the search engine, I seriously feared that the only entries I would find were more or less related with me. It is not so, apparently.

Secondly, a very respectable number of on-line encyclopaedias, including very famous ones like “Wikipedia”, have included “zoomusicology” in their lexicon. This satisfaction actually counts as two: not only the inclusion of a term in an encyclopaedia is an important legitimation for the discipline, but it is really flattering to notice that the definition used in those websites is actually the one I provided in my book, i.e., the aesthetic use of sounds among animals. A less satisfying side of this circumstance is the fact that practically all the online encyclopaedias have copy-and-pasted their entry from each other. It goes like this mostly everywhere:

Zoomusicology is a field of musicology and zoology or more specifically, zoosemiotics. Zoomusicology is the study of the music of animals or rather the musical aspects of sound or communication produced and received by animals. Zoomusicologist Dario Martinelli describes the subject of zoomusicology as the “aesthetic use of sound communication among animals.” George Herzog (1941) asked, “do animals have music?” François-Bernard Mâche's Musique, mythe, nature, ou les Dauphins d'Arion (1983), includes a study of “ornitho-musicology” using a technique of Nicolas Ruwet's Langage, musique, poésie (1972), paradigmatic segmentation analysis, shows that birdsongs are organized according to a repetition-transformation principle. One purpose of the book was to “begin to speak of animal musics other than with the quotation marks” (Mâche 1992: 114), and he is credited by Dario Martinelli with the creation of zoomusicology.

In the opinion of Jean-Jacques Nattiez (1990), “in the last analysis, it is a human being who decides what is and is not musical, even when the sound is not of human origin. If we acknowledge that sound is not organized and conceptualized (that is, made to form music) merely by its producer, but by the mind that perceives it, then music is uniquely human.” According to Mâche, “If it turns out that music is a wide spread phenomenon in several living species apart from man, this will very much call into question the definition of music, and more widely that of man and his culture, as well as the idea we have of the animal itself.” (Mâche 1992: 95). Shinji Kanki composes music for dolphins according to conventions found in dolphin music or found to please dolphins in his Music for Dolphins (Ultrasonic Improvisational Composition) for underwater ultrasonic loudspeakers (2001). Zoomusicology may be distinguished from anthropomusicology, the study of human music. Zoomusicology, is most often biomusicological, and biomusicology is often zoomusicological

(see, among others,,,

It is not the most accurate definition possible, but it is certainly an interesting one that mentions many important figures in the field and in the related areas.

A third reason for optimism is the growing attention that the most diverse institutions and people are devoting to the discipline. And that does not apply only to English-speaking contexts: zoomusicology has received the interest of music-therapists, anthropologists, biologists and local cultural institutions/foundations. We are not always talking “science”, here, but that is exactly the point: the word, and more generally the concept, inhabitating people’s talks and activities.

Outside the internet, there are more reasons for contentment: zoomusicology is more and more a topic in academic discourse; an encyclopaedia of musical semiotics edited by Gino Stefani (“Dizionario della musica nella globalità dei linguaggi”, Stefani-Guerra 2005) features an entry for zoomusicology; we have courses on the subject at the University of Helsinki; books like David Rothenberg’s Why birds sing or Jim Nollman’s The charged border are being received very successfully by readers; and, most importantly, we can safely say that an actual generation of zoomusicologists was born in the last few years. I will later discuss this very aspect.

Now. If all these read like small achievements, please remember that the first essay to ever use the word “zoomusicology” was François Bernard Mâche's Musique, Myth, Nature, in 1983, that the first English version of it was published only in 1992, and that the first explicit zoomusicological works are all dated after the year 1999. Culturally speaking, that is very little time for scientific environments to “digest” a new discipline, and for it to reach a wider public requires quite a bit longer than some twenty-twenty five years. Today, I still hear of semioticians furious because of the relatively slight attention given to semiotics in certain contexts. Imagine zoomusicology.

Two more things you might want to know before proceeding with reading:

1. Zoomusicology stands for musicology of animals. It is not zoology, biology, or other natural sciences. It belongs, however weird it may sound, to the so-called human sciences, i.e., the ones that have to do with arts, culture and philosophy. Once agreed on this point, it shall be easier to realise how innovative the field is.

2. Zoomusicology is both an experimental and a theoretical field of research, at least not in the traditional sense. That is to say, one may or may not use sound material which s/he has personally collected. For my part, I have not been to Abruzzo to listen to wolves, nor to Harvey Bay to listen to whales, nor to Mexico to listen to canon wrens performing their virtuoso chromatic scales. A choice, in the field, can be made between an expressively empirical approach, that relies upon material that the researcher him/herself gathers, or a theoretical analysis of some of the enormous amount of recordings, spectrograms, and transcriptions already available. What zoomusicology is primarily offering to science is not data-collection, but mostly analytical tools and theoretical reflections upon those data. In that sense, the presence of strictly empirical material, although preferable, is not absolutely indispensable. It is very important, I believe, that the articles contained in this issue represent, and therefore legitimate, both the approaches. 


Defining Zoomusicology

It should be soon clear that a field like zoomusicology is a) of extremely wide concern (possibly, among the widest, considering the millions of animal species existing on earth); and b) with very few scientific precedents. As Mâche emphasises,

Obviously, the study of an animal species cannot be exhaustive. Just as the best singers are at the same time those in whom one finds the greatest individual variations, one must have access to numerous hours of recordings of a great number of different individuals, throughout their entire habitat, in different seasons and over many years. It is not surprising that the number of species for which this kind of work has been done remains minuscule. Generalisations still depend largely on the familiarity of the describer with the species described (Mâche 1992: 98)

We are certainly getting ready for more detailed and pinpointed analyses of specific cases, as now the theoretical status of the discipline is not so unstable as it used to be. One of the main goals of this small collection is exactly to give an idea of how numerous the tasks of zoomusicological research can be.

The idea of zoomusicology, in the modern sense of the term, as already mentioned, originated in 1983[1] with musician and musicologist François Bernard Mâche, in his Music, Myth, Nature. He announces that zoomusicology is “not yet born”, thus establishing in actual fact its birth. Briefly put, the aim of Mâche’s essay is to “begin to speak of animal musics other than with the quotation marks” (Mâche 1992[2]: 114). My first definition of the discipline still resists to my natural inclination to continuosly revising my work: thus, I still think it is fair to say that zoomusicology studies the “aesthetic use of sound communication among animals”. The idea behind this definition is in its several implications. Firstly, one avoids the use of the dangerous word, “music”, a concept that must be handled with extreme care, even when related to just human activity, but does not avoid another dangerous word, “aesthetic”. That is because a) modern ethology and other sciences tend more and more to acknowledge aesthetic sense in animals; b) most of all, the use of this word, as preferred to “music”, is motivated by the fact that this expression represents a methodological presupposition, whereas the expression “music” constitutes the real theoretical goal; and c) the concept of “aesthetics” is a fundamental[3] ¯ though not exclusive ¯ presupposition for defining music.

Secondly, by saying “animals”, rather than “non-human animals”, one leaves open the possibility of including homo sapiens in zoomusicological research. It is important to make clear that zoomusicology is not “opposed” to anthropomusicology, but actually includes it; and it is also because if the analysis of human behaviour can also fall into the ethological domain, then human music can fall into the domain of zoomusicology. Finally, by speaking of “sound communication” one explicitly takes zoomusicology into the domain of semiotic analyses of the musical phenomenon. Such an approach, in a specific ethological and slightly anti-transcendentalist way, gets even more to the point in the expression “aesthetic use”. Naturally, there is no claim here that this should be the “institutional” definition of zoomusicology, although ¯ as I noticed in the above-mentioned internet-based search ¯ there seem to be an encouragingly wide consensus about it. The articles included in this issue of TRANS are a rather significant demonstration that many topics within zoomusicology, including its definition and paradigm, do not constitute a coherent picture.

To mention one, a strictly semiotic approach, like my own, does not seem a necessity everywhere. It is very important, I believe, that during this early stage of the discipline, zoomusicologists do not yet get confined to a limited number of approaches. First we open all the doors, then we decide which ones should be closed. Therefore, I see this heterogeneity as very healthy.  

Anyway, once established a possible definition, one might wonder about the raison d’être of zoomusicology; or: what consequences are implied in the zoomusicological study? What is zoomusicology really putting up for discussion? Mâche already attempts an answer when he says that “if it turns out that music is a wide spread phenomenon in several living species apart from man, this will very much call into question the definition of music, and more widely that of man and his culture, as well as the idea we have of the animal itself” (Mâche 1992: 95).

This quotation already hints that zoomusicology is doomed to a more or less extensive interdisciplinarity. And this is not only due to a certain ¯ fashionable ¯ tendency to scientific crossover (which, to be fair, can be a double-edged sword). A first evident reason can be deduced from the name itself,  “zoomusicology”, which sounds like an oxymoron. The prefix zoo- is generally used in biology-related research, whereas musicology is a human science. This simple dichotomy carries rather complex implications, leading to endless discussion about the possible or impossible coexistence of these two large fields of human knowledge. Although boundaries between fields of knowledge are growing thinner and thinner, as disciplines like psychology and semiotics itself confirm, it is still true that some proponents of the two parties do not make significant efforts to promote cultural exchange. In this case, however, cultural exchange is a basic requirement. Zoomusicology studies phenomena previously considered to be exclusively part of the biological domain in conjunction with human sciences. At the same time, the human sciences must reckon with previously unconsidered topics coming from biology. In the end, the basic innovation provided by zoomusicology remains the assertion that music is not an exclusively human phenomenon, but a wider one, whose bases have more to do with the biology of one individual, rather than his/her species-specific cultural development:

If we had at our disposal sufficient studies of the neuro-physiological links between biological rhythms and musical rhythms, I would probably have been able to draw up arguments which reinforce the conception I am defending, that of music as a cultural construct based on instinctive foundations […]. But if the animal world reveals to us precisely this emergence of music from the innate, this should enable us to compare it with what happens in man”. (Mâche 1992: 95).

Hence, to adopt the zoomusicological paradigm means to put seriously into discussion the present definitions of music, from its strongly anthropocentric connotation. At the same time, the whole conception of the nature-culture dichotomy is to be revised. Mostly, one should wonder ¯ as Peirce already did in speaking of synechism ¯ if we really have to consider it as a dichotomy.

Finally, on a more ethical level, zoomusicology, together with zoosemiotics, cognitive ethology and other studies, testifies to the encouraging progress of human knowledge in studying other animals. Hopefully, the disturbing ghosts of mechanism, behaviourism and evolutionism, in their most extreme and narrow-minded forms, will soon disappear, allowing humans to perceive and interpret other living beings in a more proper and realistic way.


How many zoomusicologies?

While reading the articles included in this issue, the lack of uniformity in the approaches to zoomusicology will soon be clear. That does not apply only to the above-mentioned methodological or theoretical differences (which is anyway an important point): what also occurs is a differentiation in the areas of investigation. Being a zoomusicologist is not a boring job. Its tasks vary from theoretical elaborations of analytical models, descriptive case-studies, data collection, musical interaction with other animal species, historiographical research and much other. You can take an ethological attitude as well as a musicological one, you can stay home speculating or go in a forest or overseas. You can look at the past or try to guess the future.

Not too long ago, while preparing a handbook of zoosemiotics, I drew out a little map of orientation of zoosemiotic studies during the first forty years of the discipline’s life (Tom Sebeok founded it back in 1963). What has zoosemiotics been dealing with? To say it concerns animal communication, I found out, is not only generic: it is probably imprecise, too, for it paradoxically gives, through an omnicomprehensive expression, a quite partial picture of reality. I feel zoomusicology faces the same problem. To say it deals with animal music is as vast as it is approximate. It shall be useful, also for sake of better framing the articles of this collection, to sort out a scheme of the (so far) possible orientations of the field.

It seems clear to me that a first distinction that needs to be made is between how the discipline relates to its approaches, and how it relates to its targets. In the former case, I shall refer to zoomusicology as having two main equally-important forms of data collection, interpretation and analysis: an empirical form and a theoretical one. Empirical zoomusicology refers to that type of field study where zoomusicologists analyse (and/or reflect upon) data that they themselves have collected. Data collection can consist in recordings, transcriptions and other forms of experience or interaction (fully including a musical-aesthetic one). Theoretical zoomusicology refers to a more speculative form of research, where the main target is the development of models of interpretation and analysis, whose construction does not depend from personal/direct data collection. Theoretical zoomusicologists can easily take material coming from other sources as analytical corpus, and in general their research strategy tends towards the macro, rather than the micro (the latter more often occurring among empirical zoomusicologists).  

When relating to its targets, zoomusicology may assume two further configurations (which turn out to be identical to the ones I had the chance to formulate in zoosemiotics[4]): an ethological one, and an anthropological one. Ethological zoomusicology consists in what we can already define as the “classical” zoomusicology, i.e., the study of non-human animal sounds based on the hypothesis that such sounds are to be considered musical. It is, in other words, a research form that targets the non-human animal as the main (and only) focus. Anthropological zoomusicology (or, shortly, anthro-zoomusicology), on the other hand, includes the human animal as one important target, focusing on different forms of relation that human musics may establish with non-human ones. Such forms include, among many other, the way human musicians may interpret or incorporate animal sounds in their own compositions or performances, and the already-mentioned musical interactions between humans and one or more species. In this case, the same conclusions I had the chance to underline about zoosemiotics, may apply here. Indeed, it appears that ethological zoomusicology (like ethological zoosemiotics) has a priviledged relationship with natural sciences ( obviously, from ethology), while anthro-zoomusicology (like anthro-zoosemiotics) is a closer relative of human sciences and of (specific or not) human artistic expressions. Our premise that zoomusicology is an interdisciplinary field that occupies an intermediary position between natural and human sciences finds thus another confirmation.

In the light of these reflections, we can draw the following Greimasian-inspired scheme:

Empirical zoomusicology


Ethological zoomusicology


Anthropological zoomusicology


Theoretical zoomusicology

It goes without saying, none of these branches should be intended as binding for the zoomusicologist: dealing with a topic belonging to the anthrozoomusicological area does not mean being doomed to ever avoid research in the ethological area (or even formulating hypotheses about the latter, on the basis of the conclusions reached about the former), and so forth. Every part of this scheme is complementary and supportive to each other. In addition, “clean” research is virtually impossible (and in fact not advisable, either): contamination among approaches and/or targets is preferable, and altogether unavoidable. What is more reasonable is to identify the main research program underlying a given work. The articles included in this issue are a very good example, as they basically cover the entire spectrum of the scheme.

In alphabetical order, and before going more in the detail of each essay:

-     Emily Doolittle’s article is a history of how animal sounds were treated and used in Western music. It therefore falls into the category of theoretical and anthropological zoomusicology;

-     My own article deals with the issue of social processes in zoomusicological analysis. Not being based on material personally collected, it falls into the category of theoretical and ethological zoomusicology.

-     Jim Nollman’s article is a part of a long account (published in his book The charged border) of his musical experience with orcas. It therefore falls into the category of empirical and anthropological zoomusicology;

-     Same applies to David Rothenberg, whose article deals with his own musical experience with humpback whales;

-     Hollis Taylor’s article consists in analysis of the sound repertoire of the pied butcherbird, based on sound material that she herself collected. It therefore falls into the category of empirical and ethological zoomusicology.

In practice, one can create a map of this issue of TRANS, on the basis of the specific orientations of each article:

Empirical zoomusicology


Ethological zoomusicology




Anthropological zoomusicology


Theoretical zoomusicology

It is of course not to be excluded that in the future this scheme will prove unable to cover all the research paths of zoomusicology. One point that needs to be reminded here is that the field is potentially huge, and very little has been explored so far. Things can (and will) expand quite rapidly.


Zoomusicology and musicology

Given its interdisciplinary nature, I feel it is necessary, as well as useful, to say a couple of words about the disciplines that contribute most directly to zoomusicological research. More specifically, to describe how zoomusicology relates to them.

First and foremost, musicology. To with, zoomusicology is already part of those musicological studies that carry ethical implications, in as much as they attempt to emancipate the study of music from essentially western, chauvinistic and, in this case, anthropocentric frames of reference. As Eero Tarasti properly affirms, “we want to make a new which is no longer ideological, essentialist, racist or secretly nationalistic. In other words, a new beginning that, neither consciously nor unconsciously, does not create differences and make evaluations” (Tarasti 1997: 180). At the same time, and to follow another of Tarasti’s suggestions (1997: 180-183), this wish for scientific impartiality should not affect negatively the quality of the research. Whatever the case, zoomusicology deals mostly with a musica altera (the other, by definition); therefore it must be considered a very close relative of ethnomusicology, at least for the following reasons:

1.     Ethnomusicology and zoomusicology share a common historical destiny. Almost everything happening or about to happen nowadays in the study of non-human animal music has happened (and even happens today) in the study of non-western human music. The problems which zoomusicology is supposed to solve in order to demonstrate that music is not exclusively human are in principle the same problems ethnomusicology was supposed to solve in order to demonstrate that music was not exclusively western. For this reason, research strategies in the two disciplines are very similar.

2.     The first of these strategies was to put up for discussion the traditional definitions of “music”, or more precisely, to stress that a unique definition of it does not in fact exist. Traditional definitions normally end up excluding from “music” certain sound manifestations that instead should be considered in all respects.

3.     Ethnomusicology led to a theoretical reconfiguration of musical traits and behaviours, mostly emphasising and then distinguishing the cultural components from the anthropological ones. In turn, zoomusicology is now emphasising the zoological ones. The question of universals, discussed at length in ethnomusicology, is thus crucial in zoomusicology as well.

4.     Last but not least, ethnomusicologists could not avoid dealing with musical civilisations with whom it was hardly possible to communicate, and thus had to formulate methods that could make research possible without linguistic interaction. Evidently, and even more so, zoomusicologists face the same problem.

Possibly, the most interesting aspect that zoomusicology borrows from ethnomusicology is the tripartite model for the analysis of musical phenomena. It is an analytical grid that is very common in the study of musical universals, and that proves useful in zoomusicological research as well. By structures, one means the musical traits in themselves. Analysis of this level implies a large use of sound material, such as recordings and spectrograms, and aims to define the organisation of sounds in the species observed; e.g.,  range of sounds covered, recurrent intervals, timbres, and so on. Mâche proposes exactly this kind of typological research.

By processes, one means those acts and behavioral patterns related with the structures, in the fields of emission and reception. We could call this the world of the paramusical, and it includes the whole cultural dimension of making music, with its rituals, social rules and so on. This level constitutes the best-known part of zoomusicological research, with many of its aspects already investigated by ethology. The same kind of analysis can be found in Sebeok's Play of Musement (1981), in the section entitled “Musical Signs”.

Finally, by experience, one means the level that scholars like Gino Stefani, François Delalande and Philip Tagg have proposed in the discussion about musical universals. Since musical experiences may be considered as a general human experience taking place between a subject (man or woman) and an object (musical event), they advanced the idea that a universal feature in each experience is the restatement of particular conducts and competencies. With similar presuppositions, this view may be used for zoomusicological purposes. Hence, if the level of the structures was that of the objective, and the level of the processes was that of the cultural, this one is surely the level of subjectivity, the investigation of music as an experience lived by an individual (although it is clear that many of these experiences follow general rules). Tagg's bioacoustic relations (1987), for instance, are a very interesting application of this level in zoomusicology (Martinelli, 2002).

The relationship zoo-ethnomusicology should definitely be seen within a historical-philosophical continuum, which will hopefully lead human beings to consider diversity as sources and not as obstacles[5].


Zoomusicology and ethology

If the relation zoomusicology/musicology is not necessarily an interdisciplinary one (resembling more a mother and child connection), the connection with ethology must be probably considered the strongest bound that zoomusicology established with a foreign discipline. I shall not, however, refer to classical ethology such as that of Lorenz or Tinbergen, for instance, which “was the product of the contemporary behaviourist milieu, and the founders of ethology generally had little positive to say about the possibility of understanding the inner workings of animal minds by scientific methods” (Allen 2000: e-text). The more recent cognitive approach to ethology seems to be more suitable to the zoomusicological study. Cognitive ethology may be defined as “the evolutionary and comparative study of non-human animal thought processes, consciousness, beliefs or rationality, and [as] an area in which research is informed by different types of investigations and explanation” (Bekoff 1995: 119).

Although some of the contents of this discipline were already anticipated by Darwin and some of his followers, the birth and definition of the term took place only approximately in 1976, after Donald Griffin’s crucial book, The Question of Animal Awareness. Griffin introduces the topic in the following way:

Ethologists and comparative psychologists have discovered increasing complexities in animal behaviour during the past few decades. […] The flexibility and appropriateness of such behaviour suggest not only that complex processes occur within animal brains, but that these events may have much in common with our own mental experiences. To the extent that this line of thought proves to be valid, it will require modification of currently accepted views of scientists concerning the relationship between animal and human behaviour. Because of the important implications of these developments in ethology, [cognitive ethology] will examine both the pertinent evidence and its general significance in the hope of stimulating renewed interest in, and investigation of, the possibility that mental experiences occur in animals and have important effects on their behaviour. (Griffin 1976: 3-4)

A position like Griffin’s, considering the times (we are still in the years of the behaviourist boom), must be appreciated at least for its courage and novelty. Nowadays, cognitive ethology has a more established and visible role, but in terms of big audience, such a role is not yet well rooted, and very often even the existence of the discipline is ignored. It is thus worth mentioning briefly, mostly for readers with a background in the human sciences, the main issues and problems which cognitive ethology deals with. According to Allen, there are two major tasks for cognitive ethology. The first one is of theoretical type, and “concerns the kinds of questions that scientists should be asking about animal minds” (Allen 2000, e-text). Intentionality, thoughts and conscious experiences of non-human animals are issues that scholars can no longer ignore. The second task is mainly methodological: the point is “the ways in which scientists should go about answering questions about animal minds” (Allen 2000, e-text). Observing non-human animals under natural conditions, in contexts of problem-solving (i.e., those problems for which their intelligence has become adapted by evolution) is probably the best way to answer these questions.

Ethology and zoomusicology display their connection in the field of terminology, as well. Indeed, considering the remarkable amount of terms borrowed from the musical jargon used in the ethological study of acoustic communication (song, antiphonal song, chorus, duet, etc.), one could be tempted to think that the zoomusicological hypothesis is quite popular in ethology. In fact, the use of such terminology, as applied in natural sciences, does not necessarily show that scholars are actually alluding to aesthetic-related meaning. The word song, for instance, although at times applied to birds in its musical sense, tends to become rather metaphorical when applied to other animal classes. Nevertheless, the connection remains significant.

It should be finally added that cognitive (and also classical) ethology has often been dealt with the problem of aesthetics in non-human animals. It is rather revealing to browse the bibliographical references of all the contributors to this issue: it shall not take long to realise how a consistent number of the texts used belong to the area of ethological research (ornithology, cetology, etc.). In other words, if zoomusicology was indeed a musicologist’s idea, it is also true that, without the precious and numerous contributions provided by natural scientists, we would not have enough material to proceed.


Zoomusicology and semiotics

Another important contribution to zoomusicology, although (as I mentioned already) not necessarily adopted by all zoomusicologists, comes from semiotics, and particularly from the biosemiotic area (with an obvious stress on zoosemiotics). A possible point in zoomusicology relies upon a semiotic interpretation of music:

On the one hand, everyday we see people dealing with music rather spontaneously, without difficulties, both individually and socially: singing, playing, dancing, listening and so on. All this shows and implies a competence, which is not simply a know-how process, but also ¯ and consequently ¯ a knowledge and understanding of musical phenomena. We can say that people deal with music as they would deal with a mother tongue, a “language” in all respects: they use music “efficiently”, thus they know and understand it. On the other hand, we notice that all handbooks, schools, theories illustrating the foundations of musical “culture” usually do not describe music as a language, with signifiers and signifieds, but only as a syntactic system, made up of elements and rules but not provided with any semantic value. (Stefani 1998: 5, my translation)  

This brief introduction to the problem efficiently summarises the position of a few zoomusicologists (including myself). Animals delegate to music functions that are in no way reducible to merely meaningless formal tasks, as has often been claimed, especially in the last century[6]. The fact that the aesthetic dimension is elaborated and emphasised with particular attention does really not deny a more or less consistent “functionality”. Not only is aesthetics not in competition with other communicative functions, but it often accompanies and enhances them:

[…] music [expresses] those modes and emotions which lie below the level of possible communication in speech. That is, music communicates what cannot be expressed in speech. Putting it in reverse, what music communicates cannot be expressed in words. (List 1971: 400).

Several examples testify that courting processes are much more efficient when ritualised, embellished, and formally elaborated. This is true also among human beings. One makes music to pay court to someone, to defend him/herself, to inform, to keep a group united, and also to have fun, to spend his/her time, to display his/her emotions, to cheer him/herself up. All this is undoubtedly material for semiotic research: music is a semiotic issue, not simply a grammatical one.

The simple fact of using such a tripartition as the mentioned structures-processes-experience one implies the adoption of a semiotic methodology for, at the same time, syntactic, pragmatic, and semantic aspects are involved. Thus, a text, a message, coding and decoding processes, emission and reception processes and so forth have to be analysed. As Jean-Jacques Nattiez puts it,

One sees now how the semiological model can contribute to the search for universals. Based on the analysis of stylistically homogeneous bodies of works, it distinguishes between the stock, the strategic rules and the immanent data as much from the poietic as the aesthesic point of view” (Nattiez 1977: 103-104).  

Of course, all this does not imply that singing is the same thing as speaking. They are evidently two different communicative strategies. But that is exactly the point: they are both communicative strategies, each with its own characteristics and degrees of efficiency. Both do signify, and both may be understood or misunderstood.

In heading towards a specific biosemiotic discourse, I shall stress at least three elements of zoomusicological interest. Firstly, zoosemiotics takes close account of the relation between animals and the aesthetic sense, including sound communication, through attempts at systematic analysis:

[…] I would like to re-examine in some detail the question of the putative aesthetic propensity of animals, with specific (although uneven) attention to four semiotic spheres: (1) kinaesthetic signs, (2), musical signs, (3) pictorial signs, and (4) architectural signs. Sketchy as such a review must be, not such a comprehensive literature survey has been attempted before […] (Sebeok 1981: 216).

Secondly, the most recent efforts in zoosemiotic research have explicitly embraced a cognitive approach, as has already occurred in ethology. I consider such a development a significant step forward, and even a crucial presupposition in order for zoomusicology to exist, at least in the sense in which I intend it. As Felice Cimatti observes,

The complexity of animal communication systems cannot be explained except by assuming that animals do have a mind. What does it mean to have a mind? A first definition may be the following: to have a mind implies at least the capacity of i) guiding one’s own behaviour from the ‘inside’, on the basis of projects not directly connected with what happens outside; and ii) elaborating and transforming such representations[7] […] (Cimatti 1998: 9, my translation).

The way I see it, music can be perceived, elaborated, and performed only by mind-provided systems, and is thus ¯ to certain extents ¯ a conscious activity, “conscious” not necessarily meaning “verbalised”.

Finally, we owe to biosemiotics one of the theoretical milestones in the interpretation of animal behaviour: the concept of Umwelt, as defined and explicated by Jakob Von Uexküll[8] (1956). My view of zoomusicology is founded on the idea that music belongs to a transpecific behavioural level, whose developments, within the single species, are ruled by the dynamics of the respective Umwelts. To realise this has an enormous amount of theoretical implications, as it emphasises and motivates the necessity of adopting a biocentric theoretical paradigm, as clearly opposed to an anthropocentric one.

To with, to adopt the Umwelt theory means to defend the thesis of a pluralistic interpretation of Nature, which takes into account the biological foundations of certain behavioural patterns, and the autonomous and peculiar developments of other ones. Common bases and specific developments must both be taken into account in an ethological approach to musical phenomena.

Then, music cannot be conceived as a unique continuum, simply divided by grades. To locate music on one level instead of on another, implies the understanding of where exactly a sound utterance should be considered musical (human beings? great apes? primates? mammals? chordata? animals? living beings?) and also where (i.e., at which point) certain traits can be analysed in their specific autonomy.

Most importantly, music is the result of an interaction between a subject and an object, between a structure and a counter-structure, between a receptor and a carrier of meaning. These two parts are in constant and reciprocal informational exchange. In fact, the exchange itself is the real generator of the musical phenomenon, since the latter would simply not exist if the subject was not affected by it and did not affect it[9].


Whose music is this? The etic and the emic approaches

Does zoomusicology have to do with admiring a nightingale singing and considering it music simply for that reason? Or is it rather concerned with thinking that birds possess their own concept of music and that such a mental conception is what they are projecting in their sounds? This is not a secondary problem at all, and in fact questions like these arise nearly every time I happen to give a presentation or a lecture in the field.

Methodologically, the main problem is: how shall we approach such peculiar musical cultures? In what sense can we use the word “music”? This is not easy even when studying a human community: how could this be possible with animals? Everything we say is based on human criteria arbitrarily applied to other animals, since nobody could ever say if they really think in the ways we think they do. Here is another case of similarity between zoomusicological and ethnomusicological research. The same kind of issue has emerged already in the study of non-western musical cultures. The problem was whether to apply the term “music” to non-western sounds, in which sense, and from which point of view (i.e., that of the observer or that of the observed).

Borrowing from linguistics, the two last perspectives have been named etic (phonetic, in linguistics) and emic (phonemic). In brief, by the emic perspective we mean  the insider's or native's  interpretation of, or reasons for, his or her musical customs and/or beliefs; i.e., what things mean to the members of a society. By the etic perspective, we mean the external researcher's interpretation of the same musical customs and beliefs; what things mean from an analytical, anthropological perspective.

In ethnomusicology, the readers of TRANS will be well aware of it, there is still an ongoing, animated discussion on the etic-emic issue. One of the main points is that a totally emic perspective is impossible to take, especially when there is no way to establish linguistic interaction with the culture observed, so that its members could describe their own views on music. The problem becomes even more serious with non-human animals: how to adopt an almost objective perspective towards phenomena that are by nature subjective?

To with, it is certainly true that a complete interpretation of another’s perspective can hardly be achieved, but such a problem is not limited to the study of non-human animals. It rather applies to every scientific field. More importantly, an aprioristic distinction between objective and subjective perspective probably begs the question: it presupposes a dualism which is exactly what should be demonstrated, i.e., the dualism between mind and body, and between personal and impersonal perspective. Everything, or almost everything, that can be grasped about phenomena occurring within any organism, is basically the result of observations made from the outside. Ethnomusicology is again very representative in this sense. Ethnomusicologists find sound structures (e.g., what sounds like a rhythmic pattern, performed with what looks like a drum), correlated behavioural manifestations (e.g., what looks like a dance performance), and emotional experiences (e.g., what sounds like applauses) that together look/sound more or less like what we call music. Sometimes those cultures have a word (a content’s form) that corresponds to our “music”; sometimes not. Sometimes there is one word for two or more different concepts (typically, music and dance or singing and speaking), and so on. In each case, however, we trust that those elements, attitudes and feelings belong to the same whole of sense that we call “music”. This is so not only because of their mutual likeness; it is also the case because they come from someone who has thoughts, feelings, an aesthetic sense, social attitudes, customs, and whatever we consider related to the production of music. A similar strategy can be taken towards non-human sound manifestations. Everything must be demonstrated, of course, but at the same time such a possibility cannot be excluded a priori.

Finally, most of all: we do have clues to emically study non human species. To with, we can scientifically study the sensorial organs of animals, the Merkwelt, not only the Wirkwelt. In other words, the way an organism interacts with the environment is largely due to the way s/he perceives it. A quite recent example: in 1999, a team of researchers from the University of California at Berkeley wired a computer to a cat's brain and created videos of what the animal was seeing. By recording the electrical activity of nerve cells in the thalamus (that region of the brain which receives signals from the eyes), the researchers were able to view these shapes. The team used a so-called “linear decoding technique” to convert the signals from the stimulated cells into visual images. Altogether, the scientists recorded outputs from 177 brain cells that responded to light and dark in the cat's field of view. As the brain cells were stimulated, an image of what the cat saw was reconstructed. Although these images are quite fuzzy, they are clearly recognisable as versions of the original scenes. Most probably, a clearer image will be obtained by sampling the electrical output of a bigger amount of cells (I have no knowledge whether this further step has already been performed, by now). Now, in the cat's brain, as well as in the human one, the signals from the thalamus cells undergo consistent signal processing in the higher regions of the brain that improve the quality of the image perceived. By tapping directly into the brain and extracting a visual image, the team has produced a “brain interface” (what may in the future make it possible to control artificial organs and indeed machines by the sole thought). Following the same principle, it should be possible, in the future, to record what one person sees and “play it back” to someone else either in real time or at a later date.

Now, we have two big tools to interpret the cat’s behaviour in the light of that visual perception: one is philosophical, for we can speculate on how a cat’s world can be (and this is not so abstract as one might say); and the other one is technological, for we can literally “reproduce” that world, to many extents, from the simple projection on a screen.

Having said that, it is still fair to say that a totally emic approach is by definition unachievable. Among other things, as pointed out by Nattiez, the question itself of defining music is etic in principle.

The question concerning the universals of music is not and cannot be by itself a universal problem, chiefly because it is related, in the Occidental realm of knowledge, to the existence of a field of research called ‘musicology’, which considers sound phenomena as musical, independently of the place and conceptualisation which the autochthonous people give them in their own culture. […] the concept of music is culturally determined as much in our own civilisation as it seems to be in others (Nattiez 1977: 95).

This is even more true for zoomusicology, where not only do we not know what other species may call their own music, but mainly we do not know if they call it anything at all. On the other hand, however, I am not so sure that such a problem must be solved at all costs in order to determine the existence of an idea of music in other animals. It may be useful to know how the aesthetic use of sounds is defined among the diverse species, but possibly that is not even necessary. We are not necessarily searching for the existence of the signifier “music”, i.e., m-u-s-i-c. We are rather searching for the signified “music”, the signified of aesthetic use of sounds, which by convention we call here music. Once again, to create and develop the concept of “music” does not make humans the only musical animal.

The question posed by Nattiez should not be trivialised, however, for it actually carries a far more complex implication. The musicological problem exists because there is a discipline called musicology, which investigates certain issues on the basis of certain founding paradigms. Not only was musicology born within the human species, but even in a very limited portion of this species (the so-called Occident), which has its own ways of perceiving and decoding the aesthetic use of sounds. These ways are not necessarily shared by (and often are in opposition to) other members of this species.

This is the reason why a good definition of music, without Euro-, ethno-, or anthropocentrisms, becomes a crucial task for zoomusicology, exactly as it was for ethnomusicology. This is also the reason why a zoomusicological approach should take, as much as possible, an emic perspective, notwithstanding the practical impossibility of totally avoiding the etic point of view. Hence, the compromise is what we cautiously consider to be an emic approach, on the basis of similarities in traits, behavioural patterns, and emotional experience, and with the support of technology and philosophical speculation (or, if you like, semiotic abduction[10]).

So, am I suggesting here that emic is good and etic is bad? To be fair, I used to think so. I used to consider etic strategies as the point to depart from, and emic strategies as the target to reach. In the latest years, however, I revised significantly my attitude, and I must thank a few people who are contributing to this collection (namely David Rothenberg and Jim Nollman), together with some other musician. These people successfully essayd to perform music with other animals, and both Nollman and Rothenberg wrote extensively about it. Well, the thing is: they always considered their artistic sensibility as the main requirement for defining a certain phenomenon as music. In other words, their basic strategy is based on empathy, which is a very etic approach. If I, as a musician, that is as an individual who is not alien to the musical phenomenon, but in fact active part of it, perceive ¯ say ¯ a blackbird song as music, then there is an acceptable reason to think in general of that song as music.

It seems too subjective an argument to be taken seriously in the scientific sense, and not long ago I was of that opinion too. However, the truth is that many are the phenomena for which empathy and subjective recognition are the main (if not the only) criteria for decodification. Think about emotions, or about several medical symptoms, especially in relation to those subjects (like infants) who are not able to verbalise them. And, to think of music in terms of a mainly emotion-related process is far from being absurd.

Of course, I still think that etic strategies of this sort are not a sufficient reason for legitimating the zoomusicological hypothesis, but I’m increasingly persuaded of its necessity as one important argument.


The first generation of zoomusicologists

Zoomusicology is a reality. The skepticism that surrounded my first presentations (and I am sure the colleagues who contributed to this issue can say the same for their own part) is becoming rarer and rarer, and by now confined to two or three indomitable conservatives in the audience. I previously listed some of the main achievements of the field inside and outside the academic world. And, let us not underrate it: 4040 Google entries is a lot.

However, what to me is the biggest reason for contentment is the fact that these last few years have witnessed the birth and (I shall dare saying) the establishment of the first generation of zoomusicologists. It may be too early to talk of school (which is most likely the next step), but certainly it is safe to say that the times when Mâche was the main point of reference in the field also because he was the only point of reference, are over, and forever. Students defend theses in zoomusicology and scholars publish books. The great news is that they do not only have to “translate” zoomusicologically the words written by ethnomusicologists, ethologists, semioticians etc. Now they can quote another zoomusicologist, discuss his/her work, follow the same path or even attempt a different one. In other words, a new scientific community was born.

In this issue of TRANS, I have the pleasure to introduce four distinguished members of this community.

Emily Doolittle is a composer and musicologist who recently defended her PhD thesis at Princeton University, with a zoomusicological work, entitled Other species’ counterpoint: An investigation of the relationship between human music and animal songs, doomed to become a sheer classic in the field. Interested in zoomusicology since the late 1990’s, she has not only performed scientific investigation on the subject, but also incorporated non-human animal sounds in her own compositions. Her article, entitled Crickets in the Concert Hall: A History of Animals in Western Music, is ¯ despite its article-format ¯ a very detailed account of how non-human animal sounds were dealt with in the course of (human) Western music history. A special emphasis is given to contemporary (experimental or not) composers, whose interest towards other species seem to be particularly deep. Besides its specifically historiographical value, the article (as Doolittle herself points out) makes an important point on how, at artistic level, the consideration of non-human animal sounds as music is hardly put into question by human beings.   

Jim Nollman is a music composer and guitarist who has recorded interspecific music with several non-human species, including wolves, elks, desert rats and different cetaceans (beluga whales, dolphins, orcas, etc.). He is the founder of Interspecies Inc., which sponsors research for interspecific communication based on music and art. He is author of several books, including The charged border, an extensive and charming account of his musical experience with orcas Orcinus Orca (Nollman correctly refuses to use the more popular name for this species, the misleading and unfair Killer Whale). I am also glad to underline his contribution as ecology and animal right activist, most notably his succesful direction of the first Greenpeace overseas project, near Japan, against overfishing-related dolphin slaughtering (the Japanese government eventually banning the practice). His offer to this collection, entitled Getting into the Groove, is an excerpt from The charged border, and carefully describes one of the pivotal phases of his experience with orcas. Strictly speaking, the article is slightly sui generis, in that the jargon and the structure employed are not typical of an academic article. This was the result of a specific editor’s choice of mine, as I was very interested in displaying the widest possible picture of zoomusicology. Nollman offers an insider musician’s perspective which by all means enriches the zoomusicological discourse.

David Rothenberg is a clarinetist, composer and associate professor in philosophy at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Like Nollman, he is deeply interested in interspecific music (particularly birds and cetaceans), a subject he has covered with several recordings and books, including the very important Why birds sing?, which is by now one of the main points of reference for zoomusicology. He is the editor of the Terra Nova book series (published by MIT Press), whose goal is to present environmental issues from a cultural perspective. His article, entitled To Wail With a Whale: Anatomy of an Interspecies Duet, focuses on a case of musical interaction between him, as clarinet-player, and a male specimen of Humpback Whale Megaptera novaeangliae. Rothenberg, through a detailed use of spectrograms, analyses a nearly five-minute long portion of the duet, in which the whale appears to change his song in response to the clarinet. It is also interesting to compare Rothenberg’s arguments and findings with those of Nollman’s, whose work is in principle analogous.

Hollis Taylor is a violinist, composer and reseracher living in Portland, Oregon. Her musical work is rooted in experimentation and cross-over, with inputs from jazz and folk music. Her interest in zoomusicology is particularly focused on birdsong, and the pied butcherbird Cracticus nigrogularis is the subject of her doctoral studies in the University of Western Sidney. She can be considered as carrying the classical heritage of zoomusicology, her approach being significantly influenced by Mâche’s work. Her article, entitled Decoding the song of the pied butcherbird: an initial survey, analyses the use of notes, calls, and song in the pied butcherbird, by using sonograms and standard music notation as tools (Taylor has a mostly empirical approach, and part of the material she works on was personally collected and/or trascripted). It reflects comparatively upon the human musical strategies and those employed by the bird and, in general, upon the value of aesthetics in relation to its possible biological functions.

Perhaps, a few introductory words about my own article (The contexts of music: space management and social processes in zoomusicology) are needed. Its goal is to focus on a specific area of musical universals (which I extensively theorised in my previous works, such as Martinelli 2002 and 2007), that relates primarily to the animals’ social use of music, and particularly to how this use is related to the management of space (territory, soundscape, bodily movement, etc.). 

These scholars are a good representation of the first generation of zoomusicologists. A generation that, since the late 1990’s, have been producing academic and artistic work based on the idea that music is not only a human prerogative. While still retaining several pioneering components (the field, as I said more than once, is yet to be fully discovered), these works have happily decreed the end of the sheer pioneering age of the field, when a scholar like Mâche or Szoke would stand out not only for the inestimable value of their research, but also for their loneliness. On the contrary, what has been going on in the last ten years is not only exciting and valuable: it is, at last, crowded.    



What kind of future can we thus foresee for zoomusicology? The purpose of this question is not only to sketch possible what-if scenarios, but mainly to indicate some possible developments, and their causative factors, for the zoomusicological discipline, from both the “interoceptive” (i.e., inside zoomusicology) and “exteroceptive” (i.e., as applied to other disciplines) points of view.

First of all, as I already mentioned in the beginning of this introduction, one of the main (and most succesful, I believe) arguments of zoomusicology consists in pointing out the usefulness and the necessity of studying non-human animals within the domain of “human” sciences (inverted commas over the term human are by now advised). The latter are often accused of being impractical, as compared with biological sciences, which, so to say, go straight to the point. It should be noted, however, that animal-related studies demand that research was less practical, every now and then. Our approach to other animals requires more philosophical investigation, more sociological analysis, and more scientific consideration of them as subjects not only to exploit, protect or survey, but also to reflect upon and have doubts about.

In particular, zoomusicology should promote such an attitude towards its object of study ¯ i.e., the aesthetic use of sounds in primis ¯ and also, to a wider extent, towards studying aesthetic behaviour, adaptive values, sound communication, methodological problems, etc., thus overlapping with zoosemiotics, ethology, and social sciences. Put conversely, I am looking forward for a wider diffusion of zoological and ethological knowledge within the human sciences, which is healthy exactly because it will make them more aware of what really happens around them. E.g., zoomusicology uses, and sometimes introduces, methodologies and theories that traditional musicology is not very familiar with (biocentrism, Umwelt theory[11], the use of spectrograms, etc.). Hopefully, this fact will contribute to the legitimating of such theories in musicological research.

Consequently, if I did not repeat it enough times, zoomusicology both requires and stimulates interdisciplinary work. If there is any future for this discipline, it can only come through heterogeneous contributions. Like semiotics, zoomusicology should be taken also as a theoretical model, not only as a pure discipline, with a specific and authonomous paradigm. It should provide scholars from diverse fields with interpretative tools with which to deal with animal behavioural patterns related to sound communication. In my view, all so-called disciplines should act in such a way, and not turn their backs to any kind of external support. This is not syncretism, but only a wish for more collaboration. Hopefully, the next versions of Microsoft Word will no longer underline such terms in red.

Secondly, as any other study concerning non-human animals, zoomusicology helps us to understand a little more of ourselves as humans, in this case, of our music. We will hopefully be prompted to further reflection on basic issues concerning music, such as, What is music? Where does it come from? What ethological processes underlie its creation and use? Etc. The zoomusicological hypothesis, whether legitimated or not, calls into question long-established dogmas about music, from what we think music is or is not. Let us use such doubts as resources for re-formulating and, perhaps, updating concepts about such issues.

Thirdly, zoomusicology finds its place in a theoretical trend comprised of studies of popular repertoire, feminist and non-western-related musics. Their common goal is, quite simply, to redefine and in fact to knock down certain (socio-ideological) boundaries surrounding music. Somebody might call it “post-modernism”. It is not a term (and a trend) I am enthusiast about, but I can agree with Raymond Monelle when he defines it as the “rejection of unification, of manifestos, of centralising and totalising forces. It is both a return to pluralism after the modernist experiment and ¯ its true novelty ¯ an embracing of pluralism as a fundamental tenet” (Monelle 2000: 4).

Music has been totalised from various social, sexual and geographical points of view. Our claim is that it has also been totalised by species, as strictly human-related. Still, restraint is called for, and Eero Tarasti’s advice should be heeded: we should not let our desire for scientific democracy affect negatively the quality of research. This could easily occur. The challenge is to improve the quality of such (biocentric) democratically-oriented works.

Fourthly, the above-mentioned establishment of a community of zoomusicologists shows that the field has nearly overcome the exoticist curiosity and/or the sarcastic scepticism that surrounded it until not very long ago. Thirty years ago, institutions would have very hardly allowed a student to pursue a PhD in zoomusicology; fifty years ago everybody would have laughed at the very idea. Today, zoomusicology is enjoying more and more support by scholars and academic institutions. Of course, it is still a time for sceptical questions (“Are you sure animals are able to do that?”), of anecdotes (“You should meet my cat Felix: he dances every time I play a Strauss waltz”), and of outright hostile comments (“How can you really call it music?”). Further, it is also a time of media interest in the topic, as not just me, but also colleagues like Rothenberg and Nollman can testify. I prepared and wrote my first book between 2000 and 2001, spending some of that time in Italy and some in Finland (where I earned my PhD), saying little about what I was doing. Still, Radio Rai (the Italian national broadcasting company), Helsingin Sanomat (the most important newspaper in Finland), Yle (the Finnish national broadcasting company), several Finnish and Italian magazine, newspapers, and Tv/Radio channels showed much interest in my work, releasing programs, interviews and articles on the subject (and even some pictures of me, in one of which I was actually asked to pose with some pets. “Some” means two cats, one dog and a parrot on my shoulder. I am still proud of having refused). Jim Nollman says that, by attracting a lot of media attention with his activities, he helps to promote the protection of whales. Luckily, thus, it is not just media-folklore.

We are all looking forward to the stage of cultural acceptance, of course, when nobody will question zoomusicology in terms of status and scientific paradigm (anecdotes, in particular, I cannot take anymore), and I hope this essay collection contributes to that time. But, mostly, I cannot wait for the further stage, that of indifference; i.e., the time when studies of the musical culture of, say, wolves are as common (and as boring, sometimes) as are studies on Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. That glorious day, some people will be interested in wolf music, and some people will be yawning, but ¯ finally ¯ no one will be astonished (or even “charmed”) any longer.

Last but not least, my wish (and I am sure I am talking on the behalf of my colleagues as well) is that zoomusicology contribute towards more ethical respect for non-human life, however near or far from our own species that life may be. The constant danger of many species becoming extinct should alarm not only supporters of animal, but music-lovers as well.


  • [1] Curiously enough, a more specific term like "ornithomusicology" turns out to be older, its coinage being dated 1963, thanks to Hungarian scholar Peter Szöke
  • [2] The excerpts quoted in this article are taken from the English edition of Mâche’s work, published in 1992; the original version was issued in 1983.
  • [3] The entire discussion, mainly philosophical, about the essence of aesthetics, and its evolution through the centuries, cannot reasonably be reported in this essay, and for the most part, there is no way to produce a universally satisfying definition of aesthetics, for any such attempt would draw criticism from specialists. In this short note I shall thus mention some of the already-made attempts from a zoosemiotic perspective:
    1. According to Charles Hartshorne (1973), at a very biological level, aesthetic stands for not merely or too directly utilitarian.
    2. The word "aesthetic" ¯ also etymologically ¯ has a clear connection with senses and perception, and particularly with concepts like “pleasure”, “perception”, “taste”, a certain sense of "beauty”, etc.
    3. According to Roman Jakobson, language has an aesthetic function when it is more concerned with signifiers rather than with signifieds.
    4. As Aristotle pointed out in speaking about tragedy, aesthetic messages have to be at the same time parà tèn dóxan (i.e., unexpected, contrary to common beliefs) and katà tò eikòs (i.e., likely, believable).
    5. According to Eco (1968), aesthetic information may be decoded in consequence of three factors: a) signifiers acquire signifieds only from contextual interaction; b) the matter of signifiers is not totally arbitrary as regards the signifieds (as in the case of onomatopoeic words); c) the message involves many levels of reality (e.g., physical matter of the signifiers, denotation, connotation, and so on).
  • [4] See, for instance, Martinelli 2007: 34-35.
  • [5] In this sense, a relevant role in zoomusicological research is played also by the social sciences. There is a wide area of research, preliminary and mostly propaedeutic to straight zoomusicology, which accounts for individual and collective mental schemes that human beings project onto other animals. Accurate research has been done regarding the interactional dynamics of social types, in-group/out-group categorisations, stereotypes and prejudices. Zoomusicology, and zoosemiotics in general, can only benefit for an application of these studies in the field of the human-other animal relation.
  • [6] “The study of music with respect to its character as a species of sign unites avenues of investigation which have become increasingly isolated in musical scholarship: the comparative study of music and other symbolic media (now largely the province of philosophical aesthetics), the analysis of musical structure and music’s technical systems (“music theory” in its conventional, academic sense) and studies of the social, historical and cultural contexts of music (musicology and ethnomusicology). Musical semiotics allows the reintroduction into musical scholarship of problems concerning musical signification which have been repressed or neglected as a consequence both of the recent specialised development of the musical sciences and of the tendency of twentieth century aesthetics to promote an abstract, non-referential interpretation of music” (Sebeok 1986: 577)
  • [7] by mental representation, Cimatti means: “an internal trace of an external stimulus, which can be re-activated even without the original stimulus” (Cimatti 1998: 9, my translation)
  • [8] Uexküll is one of those (many) so-called ‘cryptosemioticians’, i.e., scholars who proposed mostly semiotic problems under different scientific labels (theoretical biology, in this case): “The semiotic usage of the term Umwelt […] began with Thomas A. Sebeok’s reading of the work of Jakob von Uexküll. J. von Uexküll himself (1864¯1944) was what has been termed a ‘cryptosemiotician’ rather than a semiotician proper. He did not see himself from within the perspective of semiotics. He thought of himself rather in terms of research in biological science, early ethology, some might put it. It took a semiotician, Sebeok in particular, as it happened, to see that Uexküll’s work, in its central application of the expression ‘Umwelt’ […], concerned ‘biological foundations that lie at the very epicenter of the study of both communication and signification in the human animal’, and every other animal, for that matter" (Deely 2001: 125-6).
  • [9] In conclusion to this short review of the interdisciplinary connections of zoomusicology, it shall be fair to say that not much material would have been available either if one avoided contributions from philosophy. And that applies to at least three cases:
    1. Historical: There is a whole area of investigation, which can be called proto-zoomusicology, that focuses on philosophers of the likes of Democritus, Kircher, Hawkins, Locke and others, who dealt with sound manifestations in non-human animals, considering them more or less musical. The term “music” is of course employed according to the personal definition of each given philosopher, or according to the definitions dominant in a given period. What emerges is an extraordinarily heterogeneous picture, comprised of mere speculation and/or empirical research, anachronistic and/or future-oriented hypotheses, sharply focused and/or allusive arguments.
    2. Ecological: there is a lively discussion in current philosophy, concerning the anthropocentrism/non-anthropocentrism debate. As in the case of social sciences, philosophy is very productive in terms of methodological presuppositions for the development of the zoomusicological study.
    3. Ethical: I cannot, nor do I want to, avoid engaging the ethical implications of this research. Scientific inquiry can be easily done while ignoring ethical implications that nevertheless exist, and on several levels. Otherwise, one may choose to be aware of such implications, and devote at least a little space to them. To me, the second option is preferable, and referring to scholars such as Singer, Regan or Vilkka is not only an ideological choice, but also something useful in strictly theoretical terms.
  • [10] Abduction is a research method proposed by Charles S. Peirce. A surprising phenomenon, X, is observed. Among hypotheses A, B, and C, A is capable of explaining X. Hence, there is a reason to pursue A. Although, logically speaking, that does not seem totally trustworthy, abduction, Peirce maintains, is precisely the reasoning procedure that scientists use most, for it is the only method that explains phenomena rather than simply classify them (as induction and deduction do). Abduction is a "logic of discovery", a kind of critical thinking which opens doors of opportunity for scientific research. Abductive strategy tends towards an emic perspective, because it is the only form of investigation which allows for the explanation of phenomena "internal" to the subject observed, according to objective rules decoded from the outside.
  • [11] I take it as a very good sign that Umwelt theory also appears in the latest developments of Eero Tarasti’s theories of musical semiotics


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