What You Didn’t Know About Koko’s Musical Skills

Koko was a western lowland gorilla born in captivity in 1971. She was most famous for her ability to communicate in sign language and make emotional connections with people as well as other animals, including several kittens that she had “raised into cat-hood,” according to PBS. However, Koko had other talents that were not as well known as her impressive sign language vocabulary of over 1,000 words or her status as the world’s first simian cat lady, including her musical ability.

Per NPR, a 2012 study by scientists affiliated with The Gorilla Foundation involved making videos of Koko playing with several wind instruments, including a recorder, a harmonica, and party favor whistles. Within 17 different instances of Koko using the instruments, researchers found 38 sequences to study that led to their conclusion: Koko’s breathing pattern statistically differed when she was playing music than when she was not. She voluntarily altered her breathing “in both frequency and forcefulness” in order to be able to make noises via the instruments. This was previously thought to be something no primates other than humans were capable of performing. 

Koko jammed with a Red Hot Chili Pepper

Barbara J. King of NPR wrote that Koko’s ability to learn how to control her breath enough to be able to play wind instruments showed that skills we think of as being innate are often learned. Therefore, living beings’ abilities to learn via “ever-varied physical and mental challenges that may ‘grow’ our skills” are actually much richer than we might think. Koko also showed interest in music throughout her life, which might have been a positive influence when it came to learning how to play recorders, harmonicas, and whistles. There are also videos available of Koko playing on keyboards, and in 2016, as reported by the AV Club, Koko met Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, who The Gorilla Foundation called “one of [Koko’s] favorite musicians.” Flea showed Koko his bass, and she responded by taking the instrument into her own hands and plucking the strings, as shown on this YouTube video. Flea called the jam session “the greatest thing that ever happened,” and The Gorilla Foundation joked about “future collaborations” between the two. Koko died of natural causes in 2018 at the age of 46.

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