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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Sep 13;108(37):15510-5. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1103882108. Epub 2011 Aug 29.

The motor origins of human and avian song structure.

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Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL 60208, USA.


Human song exhibits great structural diversity, yet certain aspects of melodic shape (how pitch is patterned over time) are widespread. These include a predominance of arch-shaped and descending melodic contours in musical phrases, a tendency for phrase-final notes to be relatively long, and a bias toward small pitch movements between adjacent notes in a melody [Huron D (2006) Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA)]. What is the origin of these features? We hypothesize that they stem from motor constraints on song production (i.e., the energetic efficiency of their underlying motor actions) rather than being innately specified. One prediction of this hypothesis is that any animals subject to similar motor constraints on song will exhibit similar melodic shapes, no matter how distantly related those animals are to humans. Conversely, animals who do not share similar motor constraints on song will not exhibit convergent melodic shapes. Birds provide an ideal case for testing these predictions, because their peripheral mechanisms of song production have both notable similarities and differences from human vocal mechanisms [Riede T, Goller F (2010) Brain Lang 115:69-80]. We use these similarities and differences to make specific predictions about shared and distinct features of human and avian song structure and find that these predictions are confirmed by empirical analysis of diverse human and avian song samples.

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