So You Think You Can Dance?

So You Think You Can Dance? The Science of Rhythm. Even the dorkiest amongst us can tap a foot to a beat, or snap our fingers to music. Dancing is a uniquely human trait… or is it? Conspicuously, many of our animal friends (dogs and cats) or close relatives (nonhuman primates) do not show rhythmic entrainment to music , even after extensive exposure and training.

Snowball, a cockatoo cutie, has millions of fans worldwide (I was sold on him after watching him dance to Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust: Snowball dances to Queen). Researchers changed the tempo (beats per minute, BPM) of his favorite song (Backstreet Boys, Everybody) and showed that he could slow down or speed up in response, although he does go out of synchrony occasionally.

Budgerigars incorporate learned sounds in their warble songs. In a recent study, eight budgies were trained to peck a button (rather than move their bodies) in response to a metronome (instead of complex music). Budgies quickly got in the groove, doing better at faster tempos that matched their warbles. Like humans, they show auditory dominance, in contrast to monkeys that show clear preference for visual stimuli and required year-long training to learn to tap to auditory stimuli.

♫ In another study, researchers watched thousands of YouTube videos, or in science-speak, “an extensive comparative data set from a global video database systematically analyzed for evidence of entrainment in hundreds of species”. They concluded that only vocal mimics had the ability to entrain, that is, coordinate their movement rhythmically in response to sound. Vocal mimics include some species of birds (parrots, starlings, budgies), cetaceans(whales, dolphins), pinnipeds (seals) and even elephants.

♫ The conclusion is that rhythmic synchronization evolved as a by-product of selection for vocal learning. “Once auditory-motor coordination in the vocal control system has been established, a similar auditory-motor transformation system for other body parts might be derived from that”,says Yoshimasa Seki of the RIKEN Brain Science Institute.

What are the implications of these findings? First, we now have additional models to study the neural and genetic basis of entrainment. Second, these examples of convergent evolution (when different species that are not closely related evolve the same trait) serve as statistically independent events, that allow us to test hypotheses about the evolution of human language,music and dance. Meanwhile, enjoy another overlap between Science and Art.

♫ Budgie study (check out the free supplemental videos): http://www.nature.com/srep/2011/111017/srep00120/full/srep00120.html

Snowball’s study: http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822%2809%2900890-2

For #ScienceSunday curated by Allison Sekuler and Robby Bowles .

This entry was posted in Rajini Rao. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to So You Think You Can Dance?


  1. The bird dances as well as I can!


  2. That bird dances better than I can! 🙂

  3. Lex Barron says:


    That was the most rad piece of scientific evidence I have ever watched : ) And it looks like the cockatoo was still having more fun!

  4. Rajini Rao says:


    Think of the fun the researcher’s had 😀

  5. Lex Barron says:


    aha.. but if you watch the ‘Snowball conference’ video that pops up after it looks like the bird could just be taking cues from the woman. Remember the counting horse?

  6. Chad Haney says:


    Arghh, I can’t find the dubstep version of Frostie the Cockatoo. I’ll find it later.

  7. Rajini Rao says:


    Lex Barron , exactly why in their publication (link in my post) the authors noted: First, with home videos it is not possible to rule out imitation of human movement, which is of particular concern with parrots because they have the unusual ability to mimic nonverbal human movements [22]. Second, it was not clear whether Snowball could synchronize to music across a broad range of tempi (a key feature of BPS). To address these issues, we report here an experimental study involving suppression of human movement and manipulation of the musical tempo.


    They borrowed Snowball from his owner and subjected his response to tempo changes to statistical analysis to rule out chance or response to owner.

  8. Lex Barron says:


    Yes I did not read the paper (I am actually supposed to be working now so I just checked quickly and made an off-the-cuff comment), and it would be an entry level mistake not to remove the chance of a visual cue. When I have time I will definitely read the paper. Thanks for sharing

  9. Chad Haney says:


    Watch out Lex Barron, Rajini Rao, Gnotic Pasta, and Feisal Kamil have been known to thwart attempts at work with there G+ posts/comments. Good luck.

  10. Lex Barron says:


    Thanks for the heads up Chad Haney If it’s not the hockey it’s G+ distracting me. Nice shirt by the way… Although an enforced Canucks fan (I moved to Vancouver from the UK) I am thinking of switching my allegiance permanently to the wings. (although last night looked a little better for us). You have a cooler jersey and Todd Bertuzzi!

  11. Rajini Rao says:


    Uh oh, games up! Chad Haney , I have to get sneakier in my subversive endeavors! Gnotic Pasta , any ideas? 🙂

  12. Chad Haney says:


    Gnotic Pasta Free radicals? Now you’re on to something. We have an imaging system here that can image free radicals. Throw an octopus on the ice and we’re in business.

  13. Rajini Rao says:


    You’re a devious one, Gnotic Pasta ! Good thing I’m not easily distracted 😉

  14. Chad Haney says:


    FYI, non-hockey fans. Legend of the Octopus.


    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legend_of_the_Octopus


    Actually they are pretty amazing creatures. Someone wanted us to image a live one with MRI. We had to explain that the water surrounding it would make imaging it difficult. So no octopus MRI, yet.

  15. Rajini Rao says:


    Awesome range of vocal mimicry by Einstein, Prithiraj Sengupta , thanks for the share! There is also Alex the parrot who had a scientific paper devoted to him and an obituary in the NY Times. 🙂 Amazing to think for their vocal capacity is so similar to ours, but evolved independently.


  16. Yes + Ranjni Rao. Read that article long back. He was moody.. sometimes.. 😀


  17. If tiny particles can have rhythms. We can expect beings with some intelligence can dance too.. :D.. May be the Octopus dances to lure his wife. 🙂 Gnotic Pasta

  18. Rajini Rao says:


    No, no Prithiraj Sengupta , do pay attention here 🙂 The octopus may be good for inspiring hockey victory dancing among the Detroit Red Wings but with no vocal mimicry, there can be no dancing. (There will be a quiz on entrainment tomorrow).


  19. Rajini Rao I love to dance and feel the need to do this innately. I am continually fascinated by the (approx) 1 out of 50 humans in a club that have no sense of rhythm whatsoever. Not only that, but they are unaware. This seems to suggest that mimicry in being attempted but thaht there is something more missing.


  20. I am sure, who don’t dance well, do dance in the mind very well. And when it gets to the extreme inside, it erupts with master piece. 😀

  21. Rajini Rao says:


    Mike McLoughlin , one could argue the case for non-human primates in some clubs 🙂 Just kidding. Actually, the budgie paper made some allusion to differences between individuals. Of course, they said it like this: “We can infer from our finding that such rhythmic sensorimotor synchronization ability is likely present in all individual parrots, but latent in many of the conspecifics.” In other words, exposure to the right training had some impact on performance. They also noted: “Because this study was designed as a controlled experiment, we excluded all social factors. However, given that a study on humans reported the social facilitation of rhythmic entrainment among children and in view of the social nature of budgerigars, a more social experimental environment may improve the birds’ performance.”


  22. Gnotic Pasta There may also be a cultural element. I am a painfully reserved English person so I took salsa classes (my wife was too embarrassed to attend so I went on my own) and the rhythm required by salsa felt very alien to me indeed. Ironically, the teacher was from eastern Europe who continually drifted out of time which caused some very funny/embarrassing social collapse moments where half the group felt compelled to follow her out of time while the strict adherents (like me) grimly stuck with it. Very surreal.


  23. Mike McLoughlin You have the URGE!! the THIRST!! to get the juice of life. 😉 Kidding (but you have).


  24. Rajini Rao I’ve been to those clubs and know just what you mean 🙂 So, you are inferring that ‘better’ dancing is the result of exposure to such dancing etc. Ok.

  25. Rajini Rao says:


    Of course, there are always genetic differences as well. Back to nature AND nurture to explain everything! It was very brave of you to attempt the salsa. There is something about Latin American dance forms that is difficult to overcome one’s inhibitions 🙂 Too much convent education in my case.

  26. Rajini Rao says:


    LOL, Snowball is a good sport! IMO, I think he enjoyed Freddie Mercury more than MJ.

  27. Rajini Rao says:


    Haha, Feisal Kamil , perhaps the techs were tone deaf? 🙂

  28. Mark Arnold says:


    Gnotic Pasta I’m like you. I’ve even played a number of musical instruments throughout my life… but I have no urge to listen to music on the weekend – I could, I have a computer, phone, etc, but I just have no desire to turn the music on. From what I’ve seen most people like to have music playing whenever they can (and today’s modern world lets that be most of the time) and pine for live music performances.


    I don’t hate it or anything – if music is playing, I typically just tune it out and don’t notice it.


    I do wonder why I’m not as enamoured as most people with the sound of music.


    Oh another random, related thought. On social sites, when they give a category for “favourite music” I simply can not fill this out. I don’t really have a “favourite”, music just “is”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s