Musicians and ethnomusicologists have long been interested in the idea of musical universals, the proposition that features of musical structure are common to the music of all human cultures. Recently, the development of new techniques and new theory makes it possible to ask whether the perceptual principles underlying music span not just human cultures but also other nonhuman species. A series of experiments addressing this issue from a comparative perspective show that a songbird, the European starling, can perceive pitch relations, a form of musical universal. However, the species transposes pitch relations across large shifts in tone height with difficulty. Instead, songbirds show a preference for learning pitch patterns on the basis of the absolute pitch of component tones. These results suggest further comparative studies of music perception may be especially worthwhile, not just for gathering new information about animals, but also for highlighting the principles that make human music perception unique.


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