How musical are animals? Taking stock of zoömusicology's prospects

Hollis Taylor

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article surveys zoömusicology, the study of music in animal culture. Discussing the field’s multidisciplinary intellectual history, its current state of research, and future opportunities and challenges, the article draws together ancient and recent literatures on human exceptionalism and the definition of music, and it critiques the role that consciousness, intentionality, language, and function play in discussions of animal capacities, particularly vis-à-vis music. Theories about the origins and evolution of music serve to link cross-cultural comparisons (often produced in the search for music universals) to cross-species comparisons. The article considers birdsong (including early recordings, birdsong transcription, and sonographic analysis), whale song, insect sonification, and other forms of animal music, as well as animals who seem to appreciate human music. It also catalogs related endeavors that bridge musical, ecological, and epistemological issues. Profiles of key zoömusicologists open a window onto the diversity within the field. The article argues for zoömusicologists to participate in performances based on the species they research. One open question is whether fieldwork should be mandatory in zoömusicology or whether relying on other researchers’ recordings and fieldnotes could suffice. In imagining multidisciplinary collaborations, the article explores how zoömusicologists might navigate between the approaches of the sciences, which deal with generalities and replication, and those of the arts and humanities, which incline towards particularities and one-offs. It unsettles the implications of prestige differentials inherent in hard/soft, science/humanities, and human/animal binaries, and proposes that a zoömusicologist-in-residence be appointed for all major science laboratories that study animal sonic phenomena.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-35
Number of pages35
JournalMusic Research Annual: a multidisciplinary journal of key issues in music studies
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • zoömusicology
  • musicality
  • birdsong
  • whale song
  • ethnomusicology


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