Each species has its own unique capacities; an attitude for speech and music may be our own human-distinctive feature. Why are we musical, rhythmic animals? And why do we speak? Do these two human capacities have a joint evolutionary history? To tackle these questions, our group investigates why humans and some other species are so skilled at vocal learning and rhythm, and how these capacities underlying speech and music may have evolved.
When compared to other species, a peculiar human feature is our capacity for vocal learning: the ability to imitate and learn new vocalizations which do not belong to our innate repertoire. Humans are also outliers in their sense of rhythm: their enjoyment of rhythmic patterns and drive to synchronize to them. Both rhythm and vocal learning, on which human music and speech are based, represent an evolutionary mystery: Both abilities are rare in mammals and scattered across taxonomic groups. A recent hypothesis in cognitive neuroscience links rhythm and vocal learning, but their presence in humans is only one instance of co-occurrence: the link needs to be tested in other species. Our comparative approach, targeting similarities and differences across humans and species, will test this link to show what is typically human, but also only human, in rhythm and vocal learning. Our research aims at identifying which speech precursors are present across species, and how rhythm cognition varies across human cultures. We tackle these issues with five interconnected strands of work.