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FEATURE | Are Animals Really Capable Of Making Music?

By Anya Wassenberg on December 14, 2018

Doggos dig Mozart, goldfish can distinguish between Stravinsky and Bach, and elephants are better at staying in time than we are, as it turns out.

Cats on pianos, Kittens
Doggos dig Mozart, goldfish can distinguish between Stravinsky and Bach, and elephants are better at staying in time than we are, as it turns out. (Photo: Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

We’ve all seen the videos of dogs playing piano and elephants dancing to violin music. But, are those animals really reacting to the music, or are they reacting more to the people who are playing it? Is it all just wishful thinking on our part? We’ve taken a look into the science behind animals and music —  to see what’s behind the social media hype.

The body of scientific research on animals and music is relatively small, but there are several studies that have been published over the last two decades or so. Fundamentally, the answer to whether animals like our music seems to be: it depends on the species. Beyond the novelty of why goldfish and elephants would be more responsive than monkeys, the research points at the ancient origins of music as an essential component of human behaviour and psychology.

Researchers at the Colorado State University looked at the way kennel dogs reacted to various types of music. They studied behavioural clues like their activity levels, barking and other vocalizations, and nervous body shaking. The researchers played two different types of classical music, and heavy metal. As the paper, published in The Journal of Veterinary Behavior in 2012, noted, dogs slept more to any kind of classical music, and seemed more relaxed when it was played. Heavy metal, in contrast, made them agitated, and seemed to actually provoke nervous body shaking. That research paperbacks up other studies done at Queen’s University in Belfast.

Dogs and Cats

While our beloved pooches seem to enjoy Beethoven as much as we do, it will surprise no one that cats seem to prefer a special music all their own. In a study published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior in 2015, a team of researchers from the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin, and the School of Music at the University of Maryland wanted to test a theory about species-appropriate music. Studies of music and its effects on animals have been conflicting, and sometimes widely so. Some animals simply don’t seem to respond to human music at all. So, the researchers set out to create music composed specifically for cats.

The researchers composed a few pieces of music that mimicked the vocalizations and natural rhythms of domestic cats, and their results seem to indicate that the experiment worked. Cats were observed to demonstrate what the paper calls “a significant preference” for cat music over human music, including approaching humans, rubbing against their legs, and other friendly behaviours. Interestingly, younger and older cats were the most responsive, with middle-aged cats the most indifferent.

You can check out their results — and buy tracks, here.

So, what’s behind the difference in those responses? Dr. Paul A. Faure is the Principal Investigator at the McMaster Bat Lab. Part of the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour, the Bat Lab looks at links between hearing and behaviour.

“My lab studies bio-acoustics,” Dr. Faure explains. “The main focus of the lab is hearing.” In that respect, bats make the ideal subject for study. “They use hearing as the primary means of imaging their environments.” They use echolocation to feel their way around, in other words.

As he explains, all mammals have a link between the auditory and neurological systems. It means that, at an automatic level, we react in specific ways to various types of sounds. “You step out on the street, someone sounds a horn, and you jerk back,” he says. “The startle response is hardwired.”

Animals respond in different ways to the sounds of their own and of different species. As a predator approaches, however stealthy, they will hear the sounds of others of their own kind avoiding the threat. In other words, in animals, hearing is acutely attuned to their own biology and immediate environment. As such, music comes as something entirely outside their usual experience. “I would say that animals are listening to a foreign stimulus,” he explains. What they do respond to would logically be a sound that falls within that circle of their own experience. “It has acoustic elements that resemble the natural world.” Those elements would include the patterns of the notes, their frequency, and amplitude, Dr. Faure explains. Otherwise, the response is nil. “It’s like white noise.”

However, he points out that you could use the same logic to explain the human response to the music we compose and perform. “We have this concept as humans of consonance and dissonance,” he notes.

“Tonotopic Organization” is the term for how the receptors in the cochlea are tuned, as the gateway to the auditory pathway. “They maintain a spatial frequency,” he explains. That means, for example, that we perceive certain harmonics as simply sounding right, while others have a jarring effect. That structural organization is present in all mammals.

Monkeys

It turns out, perhaps not surprisingly, that monkeys have a more complex relationship to music than cats and dogs. The same researchers who composed music for cats did the same for tamarin monkeys in 2009. Their musical compositions were based on the pitches used by the monkeys in their calls. The study, published in Biology Letters, noted that the monkeys’ response depended on the kind of pitch that was used. If the composition mirrored the calls the tamarins made in fear, it made them agitated. Likewise, when the music sounded like the calls they made when calm, the monkeys relaxed. They didn’t seem to respond to any human music other than one heavy metal song by Metallica, which calmed them. But, what do monkeys know?

According to lead author Charles Snowdon, animals can discern absolute pitch, but do not possess relative pitch — i.e. the ability to recognize a sequence of notes or melody no matter what key it is played in.  The abstract theorizes that the emotional components of human music may “have evolutionary origins in the structure of calls of non-human animals” and that the vocal signals of animals may have evolved directly as a means of influencing behaviour. Our emotional response to the music, in all likelihood, extends back beyond the earliest days of humanity itself.

Cows

There are many videos on social media of cows, donkeys, and horses seemingly reacting to music. In 2015, musicians from the Cleveland Orchestra went to a nearby farm sanctuary to play violin, guitar, and oboe to farm animals. While the experiment was unscientific, the observations were definitive: the cows were interested in the music, and clearly came closer to listen.

With vocalizations that fall within the same range as humans, it makes sense. And, as with the Cleveland Orchestra experiment, cows do seem to prefer classical music. Researchers at the University of Leicester in the UK experimented with various types of music and very large herds of Friesian dairy cows back in 2001. Rather than look at genre, the researchers experimented with playing various tempos of music, and also a 12-hour period of silence. Music that was slower and calming, such as Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (No 6) resulted in an increase in milk production of 3 percent. The lead researcher theorized that it was due to stress reduction.

Elephants

The internet is in love with elephants and their ability to dance to violins and paint abstract pictures. But, while most research into animals and music is contemporary, perhaps the very first experiment with animals and music involved two Ceylonese elephants and the Conservatoire de Musique in Paris in 1798, long before social media. The orchestra performed pieces by Gluck, Rousseau, Monsigny, Haydn, and Rameau while the pachyderms swayed their trunks rhythmically in response.

Columbia University neuroscientist David Sulzer went to north Thailand in the early 2000s to study the Thai Elephant Orchestra, an ensemble of 16 pachyderms brought together by conservationist Richard Lair. They play specially adapted instruments, including steel drums and harmonicas. The experiment resulted in three albums full of elephant music. As Sulzer explained in an interview with The Economist, the Elephant Orchestra would be given a musical cue, and was then left to improvise. He noted that the elephants had a distinct sense of rhythm, flapping their ears and swishing their tails as they listened to music, and sometimes adding their own trumpeting to the melody. When playing their own instruments, he noted that the elephants were able to keep a stable tempo on a large drum more accurately than their human counterparts.

Elephants do also seem extraordinarily responsive to human music. A study by researchers at Queen’s University in Belfast made recommendations for a zoo. There, workers play Elgar, Beethoven, and Puccini to calm the captive elephants when they are restless. It has reduced abnormal behaviours associated with captivity and boredom, including pacing and constant swaying.

What about our non-mammal friends?

In a study published in Frontiers of Evolutionary Neuroscience in 2012, researchers at the Department of Psychology at Emory University in Georgia wondered whether bird songs were simply a way of communicating, or whether they actually made music. They studied the way the brains of the male and female white-tailed sparrows reacted to the songs of the male birds. While the male birds seemed unimpressed by their brothers’ songs, the amygdala in the female birds’ brains lit up similar to the way humans react to music.

A study by researchers at the Macquarie University Fish Lab in Australia was published in the journal Animal Cognition earlier in 2018. The team taught sharks to associate different types of music with food rewards; they had to learn to associate different musical genres with food in different locations. It turns out that the sharks learned markedly quicker when the music was improvisational jazz. Classical music, on the other hand, seem to baffle them, and they found it more difficult to make the connection.

Goldfish are apparently more discerning musically speaking. In a similar experiment, the results of which were published in Behavioral Processes in 2012, researchers at Tokyo’s Keio University found that goldfish could learn to recognize the difference between the music of Igor Stravinsky and J.S. Bach and correlate it with locations where they’d get food rewards.

There’s a point to looking into the whole area of animal response to music further. An international research team led by the University of Vienna in 2015 looked at the use of animal behaviour testing in the context of finding the foundations of human music in the animal world. Music,  as they theorize in a paper published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, is a cultural phenomenon, but one that has sprung up in virtually every human society, pointing to underlying roots in biology.

Most pet owners are already convinced that their furry loved one is on the same wavelength emotionally as they are, and that’s nothing new. Richard Wagner came upon the idea of his system of musical motifs by the way his dog Peps reacted to melodies in different keys, and Elgar was fond of Dan, a bulldog owned by a friend who would growl at singers in the choir who were out of key.

In the end, there’s no harm in believing that your furry companion shares your taste for the Romantics, and if the Elephant Orchestra coaxes a few more well-needed dollars to conservation, it’s a worthy effort in itself.

Dr. Faure is open to the possibilities, and much work remains to be done. “We don’t really understand human preferences in sound,” he points out.

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Anya Wassenberg

Anya Wassenberg is an experienced freelance writer, blogger and writing instructor with OntarioLearn.
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Follow me

Anya Wassenberg

Anya Wassenberg is an experienced freelance writer, blogger and writing instructor with OntarioLearn.
Follow me
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