REPORT | Study Says Even Dolphins Prefer Classical Music

By Anya Wassenberg on July 14, 2022

Image by ELG21/Pixabay (CCOC)
Image by ELG21/Pixabay (CCOC)

Do dolphins prefer listening to Bach — even to playing with beach toys? A new European research study suggests they may like it more than many other sounds and activities.

The study, titled Enrichment with classical music enhances affiliative behaviours in bottlenose dolphin, was published in the academic journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science in July 2022.

Although other studies have been completed in recent years vis-à-vis various animals and music, this is the first that has specifically looked at whether Western classical music was an appropriate enrichment for bottlenose dolphins.

In other words, do they actually enjoy it?

Fans of genus Tursiops truncatus can take heart in the fact that their favourite aquatic mammal does seem to prefer classical music, even when it was compared to visual and other so-called enrichments. Enrichments are activities or other stimuli designed to improve the lives and mental health of captive animals.

The study

Researchers at the University of Padova in Legnaro, Italy, and the Oltremare Zoo compared the reactions of a group of bottlenose dolphins to classical music, alongside their take on other, simpler sounds, visual enticements, and other element that have been known to catch their attention. They looked at their behaviours both before and after listening to the music.

The study notes that music and other acoustic enrichments are already in use for land-based animals. The researchers wondered whether dolphins, as mammals, would respond the same way. Eight dolphins housed at the zoo in Riccione were the subjects of the study.

  • They compared classical music to recordings of rain falling, a video of natural environments that played on TV screens, and floating objects, something they are known to respond to;
  • They heard a combination of Bach’s Prelude BWV 846; “Morning Mood” from Peer Gynt by Grieg; Charles Camille Saint-Saens’ “The Swan” from The Carnival of the Animals; Reflets dans l’eau by Debussy; and Almost a Fantasy by Beethoven;
  • The dolphins were exposed to each enrichment for 20 minutes a day, for a continuous 7-day period, then switched to another type.

The results

The researchers looked for changes in behaviour that appeared during or shortly after exposure to each type of enhancement. Certain positive changes, such as swimming together in synch and upping the levels of activity, were nearly universal.

  • However, only exposure to classical music increased “several social affiliative behaviours” during the music as well as after it was over.

Those affiliative behaviours included gently touching each other, swimming together in synch for longer periods of time consistently, and in general, showing more interest in other dolphins.

While it’s not possible to measure happiness, their behaviours suggested happiness to the researchers. They speculated that the experience produced endogenous opioids, those feel-good chemicals such as endorphin, that tend to boost our moods.

“We know that, in a wide range of animals, endorphins are related to social bonding,” said lead researcher Dr Cecile Guerineau in a statement quoted by Daily Mail. “Activation of opioids receptors is correlated with a feeling of euphoria.”

Dr Guerineau postulated that dolphins may be able to perceive rhythm because of the way they vocalize. In effect, they were dancing together to the beat.

The researchers concluded that classical music could be a useful tool for dolphin enrichment, particularly when they were stressed or in conflict, or when changes were made to social groups.

Similar studies involving chimpanzees and gorillas found analogous results in reducing aggressive behaviour, and encouraging socialization.


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