What dancing sea lions and cockatoos can teach us about music

In June 2014, music cognition professor Henkjan Honing witnessed a strange sight: a sea lion named Ronan headbanging to a beat. When the beat sped up or slowed down, so did the bops of Ronan’s head. And when “Boogie Wonderland” by Earth, Wind & Fire started playing over the speakers, Ronan kept perfect time.

Moving with a beat may sound trivial to us humans. But Ronan’s rhythm, first published by researchers at the University of Santa Cruz in 2013, is a major clue in the quest to understand why we have music, and how it became such an important cornerstone of human culture. That’s the quest Honing, a professor at the University of Amsterdam, sets for himself in his new book, The Evolving Animal Orchestra, translated by Sherry Macdonald…

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