Birdsong: Is it music to their ears?

Since the time of Darwin, biologists have wondered whether birdsong and music may serve similar purposes or have the same evolutionary precursors. Most attempts to compare song with music have focused on the qualities of the sounds themselves, such as melody and rhythm. Song is a signal, however, and as such its meaning is tied inextricably to the response of the receiver. Imaging studies in humans have revealed that hearing music induces neural responses in the mesolimbic reward pathway. In this study, we tested whether the homologous pathway responds in songbirds exposed to conspecific song. We played male song to laboratory-housed white-throated sparrows, and immunolabeled the immediate early gene product Egr-1 in each region of the reward pathway that has a clear or putative homologue in humans. We found that the responses, and how well they mirrored those of humans listening to music, depended on sex and endocrine state. In females with breeding-typical plasma levels of estradiol, all of the regions of the mesolimbic reward pathway that respond to music in humans responded to song. In males, we saw responses in the amygdala but not the nucleus accumbens – similar to the pattern reported in humans listening to unpleasant music. The shared responses in the evolutionarily ancient mesolimbic reward system suggest that birdsong and music engage the same neuroaffective mechanisms in the intended listeners.


Ornithologists and musicians alike have long contemplated whether the song of birds might somehow be classified as “music.” The question can be approached from a variety of angles, each of which produces a somewhat different answer. Researchers have asked, for example, whether birdsong and music share evolutionary precursors or functions (Darwin, 1871; Catchpole and Slater, 1995; Miller, 2001), tonal variation or rhythm (Dobson and Lemon, 1977; Slater, 2001; Baptista and Keister, 2005; Araya-Salas, 2012), or organization (Marler, 2001), and whether, like music, birdsong is creative (Marler, 2001; Hartshorne, 2008). Whether any particular species of songbird has music-like song depends on the parameter measured and the type of analysis employed.
Birdsong, hereafter referred to as song, is a signal; it has a sender and a receiver. Ultimately, a signal’s effect on the receiver, not its structure, dictates its meaning and function (reviewed by Scott-Phillips, 2008). When comparing song and music, it may therefore be informative to ask about the receiver’s response and subjective experience. Human listeners find music rewarding; they will approach it and work to hear it. Songbirds of many species likewise show a phonotaxic response to conspecific song. Female pied flycatchers (Ficedula albicollis) and European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) approach and enter nest boxes containing speakers playing male song (Eriksson and Wallin, 1986; Gentner and Hulse, 2000), and female zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) will peck a key to hear male song (Riebel, 2000). Young male zebra finches who are learning to sing will also peck to hear song (Adret, 1993), but in general, a phonotaxic effect of song is less pronounced in male songbirds than in females (Dobson and Petrinovich, 1973; Stevenson-Hinde and Roper, 1975).
Measuring behavioral responses is but one way to assess the effects of a signal on the receiver. Over the past decade, neuroimaging studies have identified at least 20 different brain regions that show altered BOLD or PET responses during music listening. Some of the most commonly reported responses, particularly to music that is pleasurable to the listener, are those of the mesolimbic reward system. This system consists of the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and its dopaminergic projections to several regions of the forebrain, for example the nucleus accumbens (nAc) in the ventral striatum. Release of dopamine in nAc occurs at precisely the time that intensely pleasurable autonomic responses, or “chills,” are experienced during music listening (Salimpoor et al., 2011). Although the release itself may not itself cause the experience of reward, it indicates that the stimulus is associated with reward (reviewed by Wise, 2004). Also included in the reward system are the dorsal striatum (e.g., caudate nucleus in humans), the heavily interconnected amygdala and hippocampus (Hp), and the prefrontal cortex. Each of these regions have been shown in multiple human imaging studies to respond to music with BOLD or PET responses (Blood and Zatorre, 2001; Koelsch et al., 2006; Mitterschiffthaler et al., 2007; Montag et al., 2011; Pereira et al., 2011; Salimpoor et al., 2011).
In this study we looked for neural responses to song in the avian homologues of music-responsive brain regions. Functional MRI can be used in songbirds listening to song (Van Meir et al., 2005; Boumans et al., 2007), but to date those analyses have focused primarily on the major auditory areas. The nAc and other areas known to respond to music in humans are difficult to study using this technique in songbirds, primarily because of their small size. Neural responses to stimuli can be more readily studied in birds by mapping the expression of immediate early genes (IEGs) such as Fos and Egr-1. In such studies, a stimulus is presented to an animal and the brain harvested 60–90 min later. The protein products of IEGs can then be labeled in fixed brain sections using immunohistochemistry, which provides cellular resolution. Dubbed the “genomic action potential” (Clayton, 2000), the IEG response indicates that a neuron has begun to respond to a stimulus with new protein synthesis related to synaptic remodeling. Although the IEG and BOLD responses make use of different underlying molecular mechanisms, there is good agreement between results obtained by both methods (Lazovic et al., 2005; Stark et al., 2006). In songbirds, for example, hearing song induces robust Egr-1 and BOLD responses in the auditory forebrain (Mello et al., 1992; Gentner et al., 2001; Van Meir et al., 2005; Boumans et al., 2007). Egr-1 is particularly useful in the study of reward because it appears to play an active role in the reward process. In rodents, Egr-1 is induced in the reward pathway by drugs such as methamphetamine, morphine, nicotine, or cocaine (reviewed by Girault et al., 2007). Blockade of Egr-1 prevents conditioned behavioral responses to these drugs, suggesting that Egr-1 not only marks neuronal responses to reward but is required for the acquisition of reward-reinforced behaviors.
In this study, we used Egr-1 as a marker to map and quantify neural responses in the mesolimbic reward system in male and female white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) listening to conspecific male song. This species sings a particularly musical-sounding song (Saunders, 1959) with heavy use of whistles with a sustained pitch (Dobson and Lemon, 1977). During the non-breeding season, song is used by both sexes to establish and maintain dominance relationships (reviewed by Maney and Goodson, 2011). During the breeding season, however, the message contained in song differs for male and female listeners. A female listening to male song is almost certainly being courted, whereas a male is being challenged by a territory holder or intruder. Song is therefore expected to have a more positive valence for females than for males. We predicted that neural responses to song in the females would resemble that of humans listening to liked music, whereas the pattern in the males would not.
The valence of song may be affected also by endocrine state. In Zonotrichia sparrows, females give a courtship display in response to song only when their plasma estradiol (E2) reaches breeding-typical levels (Moore, 1983; Maney et al., 2009). Males respond to song by singing back, and are more likely to do so if their testosterone (T) levels are elevated (Maney et al., 2009). Because the function of song, and behavioral responses to it, vary according to endocrine state, we manipulated plasma E2 in females and T in males in order to look at the effects on neural responses in the reward pathway. Following these manipulations, we exposed the birds to conspecific male song and quantified the expression of Egr-1 throughout the mesolimbic reward pathway. Because E2 treatment was expected to increase the valence of song, we predicted that responses would be greater in the E2-treated females than in untreated, non-breeding females. T-treatment was expected to lower the valence of an already negative stimulus, so we predicted little or no effect of T-treatment on the magnitude of mesolimbic reward responses in males.
Authors: Sarah E. Earp and Donna L. Maney
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