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You are here: McMaster Institute for Music and the Mind > Publications > Imitating Sounds: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding Vocal Imitation

Eduardo Mercado III, James T Mantell, and Peter Q Pfordresher (2014)

Imitating Sounds: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding Vocal Imitation

Comparative Cognition & Behavior Reviews, 9:17-74.

Vocal imitation is often described as a specialized form of learning that facilitates social communication and that involves less cognitively sophisticated mechanisms than more “perceptually opaque” types of imitation. Here, we present an alternative perspective. Considering current evidence from adult mammals, we note that vocal imitation often does not lead to learning and can involve a wide range of cognitive processes. We further suggest that sound imitation capacities may have evolved in certain mammals, such as cetaceans and humans, to enhance both the perception of ongoing actions and the prediction of future events, rather than to facilitate mate attraction or the formation of social bonds. The ability of adults to voluntarily imitate sounds is better described as a cognitive skill than as a communicative learning mechanism. Sound imitation abilities are gradually acquired through practice and require the coordination of multiple perceptual-motor and cognitive mechanisms for representing and generating sounds. Understanding these mechanisms is critical to explaining why relatively few mammals are capable of flexibly imitating sounds, and why individuals vary in their ability to imitate sounds.

vocal pitch imitation, singing