The Evolving Animal Orchestra

The Evolving Animal Orchestra

In Search of What Makes Us Musical

By Henkjan Honing

Translated by Sherry MacDonald

A music researcher's quest to discover other musical species.





A music researcher's quest to discover other musical species.

Even those of us who can't play a musical instrument or lack a sense of rhythm can perceive and enjoy music. Research shows that all humans possess the trait of musicality. We are a musical species—but are we the only musical species? Is our musical predisposition unique, like our linguistic ability? In The Evolving Animal Orchestra, Henkjan Honing embarks upon a quest to discover if humans share the trait of musicality with other animals.

Charles Darwin believed that musicality was a capacity of all animals, human and nonhuman, with a clear biological basis. Taking this as his starting point, Honing—a music cognition researcher—visits a series of biological research centers to observe the ways that animals respond to music. He has studied scientists' accounts of Snowball, the cockatoo who could dance to a musical beat, and of Ronan, the sea lion, who was trained to move her head to a beat. Now Honing will be able to make his own observations.

Honing tests a rhesus monkey for beat perception via an EEG; performs a listening experiment with zebra finches; considers why birds sing, and if they intend their songs to be musical; explains why many animals have perfect pitch; and watches marine mammals respond to sounds. He reports on the unforeseen twists and turns, doubts, and oversights that are a part of any scientific research—and which point to as many questions as answers. But, as he shows us, science is closing in on the biological and evolutionary source of our musicality.


$27.95 T ISBN: 9780262039321 160 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 9 b&w illus.


Sherry MacDonald.


  • Any young person reading it will surely want to run away to become a cognitive scientist.

    New Scientist

  • The book is about the evolution of musicality but it's also about evolving and shifting views and hypotheses that scientists often encounter in research. Honing's quest to find what makes us musical is a prime example of how the scientific process and progress occurs.

    Massive Science


  • This is a book I've been waiting to read. I devoured it. Easy enough to follow for the layperson, and full of useful findings for the specialist. It is beautifully written by one of the true world experts in our field. A triumph, and a book that deserves to be read and cited for many years to come.

    Daniel J. Levitin

    author of This Is Your Brain on Music and The World in Six Songs; coeditor of Foundations of Music Psychology

  • We take our love of tunes and sense of rhythm for granted, but Henkjan Honing is here to tell us that it is biology, not culture, that has given humanity its astounding musical talents. In a lively first-person account of recent discoveries in neuroscience and animal behavior, he illuminates the ancient roots of musicality.

    Frans de Waal

    author of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

  • Think you can dance better than a monkey? This scientific adventure story tells us why some animals can follow a beat, while most can't. Read this book, then get up out of your chair and show off your moves.

    David Rothenberg

    Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Music, New Jersey Institute of Technology; author of Survival of the Beautiful and Nightingales in Berlin

  • How far beyond our species do musical capacities extend? In this genial and accessible research diary, music cognition specialist Honing narrates his forays into behavioral biology to answer this question. By exploring the rich perceptions and responses of monkeys, finches, sea lions, and more, he fashions an appreciation for the singularity that is human music.

    Gary Tomlinson

    Whitney Professor of Music and Humanities, Yale University; author of A Million Years of Music: The Emergence of Human Modernity