Rats can bop their heads to a musical beat

This discovery may shed light on how brains evolved to perceive rhythm

A photo of a black and white rat against a dark backdrop. The rat is standing on hind legs with its forepaws raised near its face, almost as though caught mid-dance.

Rats’ rhythmic response to human music doesn’t mean they like to dance, but it may shed light on how their brains — and ours — evolved to perceive rhythm.

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Humans aren’t the only animals that move to music. Parrots have been known to do it. And now rats have been observed bopping their heads in time with the tunes of Mozart, Lady Gaga, Queen and others. What’s more, the animals seem to respond to the same tempos that get humans’ feet tapping.

A team at the University of Tokyo in Japan made this discovery. The researchers played lab rats a sonata by Mozart — at normal speed, as well as sped up or slowed down. Meanwhile, the team recorded the rats with a motion-capture camera. Wireless sensors on the rats’ bodies also tracked their movements.

The rats’ head bobbing was more pronounced when the sonata played at its usual tempo. That’s around 132 beats per minute. The same was true for 20 people who listened to the song through motion sensor–equipped headphones.

For both humans and rats, the head bopping was consistent when the music was played at about 120 to 140 beats per minute. When the music was played faster or slower, there was no head bopping.

The team also played some of their favorite pop songs for the rats. Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” for instance. And Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” As with Mozart’s music, rats bopped along to the same tempos of pop songs as people do. That is, about 120 to 140 beats per minute.

These findings suggest there is something similar about the way human and rat brains are wired to respond to rhythm, says Hirokazu Takahashi. A mechanical engineer, he uses his expertise to study how the brain works. Takahashi and his colleagues shared the rat rhythm research November 11 in Science Advances.

Aniruddh Patel is a psychologist who studies how the brain perceives and responds to music. He works at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. Rats do seem to prefer beats that humans like, Patel says. But he is not convinced that the rats can match their motions to the beat like humans do.

Humans and parrots respond to beats with big, voluntary movements. Think head bobbing, dancing or foot tapping. To do this, people predict the timing of a beat and move predictably to it, Patel says. “So, we land right on beat or a little ahead of it.”

The rats, meanwhile, showed very tiny movements in response to music. So, it’s not clear if rats can predict a beat or if their bodies just react to it. Both Takahashi and Patel stress that this study does not show that rats like to dance to human music. Still, it could help reveal how humans and some other animals evolved a sense of rhythm.

Image: The words “Wild Things: A Graphic Tale” are written in green block letters. A toucan perches on the W in ‘Wild,’ a jaguar sleeps atop the T in ‘things,’ the letter S in ‘things’ is a snake, and other animals surround the text.
A white rat wearing sunglasses dances on a purple, blue and yellow checkered dance floor beneath a disco ball. Text: Rats got rhythm, Written by Maria Temming, Illustrated by JoAnna Wendel
Text (above image): Humans aren’t the only animals that can move to a musical beat. Image: A Black girl wearing a purple tank top and purple pants dances on the dance floor from the first panel with a parrot, a sea lion and a chimpanzee. Text (below image): Parrots, sea lions and chimpanzees are also known to bob their heads or tap their feet.
Panel 3. Text (above image): Now, researchers at the University of Tokyo in Japan have discovered that rats can get into the groove, too. Image: A rat stands in a clear cage on a desk while a video camera on a tripod watches, and a laptop hooked up to a speaker plays music. Text (below image): The team played songs by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Lady Gaga, Queen and other artists to rats in the lab. Video cameras and wireless sensors on the rats’ bodies tracked their movements.
Panel 4. Text (above image): The rats didn’t just bop along to the music. The animals seemed to respond specifically to tempos that get humans’ feet tapping: about 120 to 140 beats per minute. Image: On the left, one rat sits still while slow music plays and thinks “not really my thing.” In the middle, a rat dances along to medium-rhythm music and thinks “this is my jam!” On the right, a rat sits still while very fast music plays and thinks, “meh.” Text (below image): When music was played faster or slower, the rats didn’t react.
Panel 5. Text (above image): Just because the rats reacted to the music doesn’t mean they enjoyed it or were purposely dancing. Image: a boy holds up a tiny t-shirt that reads “band” and says to a rat, “We can be concert buddies!” But the rat just looks back with “???” over its head. Text (below image): But it does hint that there’s something similar about the way human and rat brains are wired to respond to rhythm. That could help solve the mystery of why some animals have evolved an ear for musical beats while others have not.
JoAnna Wendel

Deborah Balthazar was the Fall 2022 science writing intern at Science News. She holds a B.A. in biology with minors in English and chemistry from Caldwell University and is currently pursuing a master's degree in science journalism from New York University.

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