When John Williams wrote the score for the first Star Wars movie in 1977, he came up with one of those purely pavlovian pieces of music. If you’re in a movie theater and you hear those opening notes, it’s an automatic goosebump moment. It doesn’t matter how many terrible Star Wars prequels there might be; you still feel like you’re about to be swept away. And now some researchers in Scotland have figured out that this movie can be literally pavlovian, and that they can train a seal to sing it.
As NPR reports, Amanda Stansbury, a former PhD student at Scotland’s University Of St. Andrews, figured out how to train a gray seal named Zola to imitate musical notes. The seal, when properly prompted with fish, can sing the opening notes of the Star Wars theme, as well as “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Stansbury says, “What’s new about this research is we taught the seals how to imitate new sounds. We could have played them any song or any combination of notes… The seals learned that, hey, if I make the same noise back, I’m going to get a fish.” (That’s basically how human musicians learn, right?)
Stansbury, now a zoo supervisor in El Paso, says, “We haven’t fully studied the full extent and maybe how complex of melodies these guys would be capable of learning.”
The story reached the attention of Star Wars star Mark Hamill, who tweeted about it, writing, “Another royalty for John Williams.”
— Mark Hamill (@HamillHimself) June 21, 2019
Stansbury helpfully points out that John Williams will not actually get any royalties from a seal singing his music: “Unfortunately, we don’t have any income coming in from this. The seals might be able to share some of their fish while they’re out there, back in the wild. That’s about the only royalties we’re going to have for John Williams.”
This is all very amazing and weird, but I have a minor pedantic point. If you’re going to teach a seal to sing a piece of music from a blockbuster movie, how are you not going to do “Kiss From A Rose”?