Ask Sam: Do Animals Like Music?

Jan 24, 2020

Every other Friday on Morning Edition, Outside/In host Sam Evans-Brown tackles a question from a listener. 

Bob From Deerfield Asks: This might be a dead end, silly question, but: are there any animals besides humans that enjoy music, and if so what genre do they prefer?

*Gasp* There are no dead end silly questions on Ask Sam! Perish the thought!

There have been quite a few studies on this question. Researchers have found that cows produce more milk when music is played for them in the milking parlor, kenneled dogs are calmer when played classical music versus heavy metal, one study even suggested that ponies like country western music. (I know… I know…) However, a large number of studies found no effect, too. 

This wide variety of outcomes led one researcher — Chuck Snowden a retired professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison — to ask the question in a different way. His central insight was that most studies were simply playing human music for animals. 

“Well, why should monkeys care about human music?” he said, “They care about music that’s relevant in their frequency ranges that they use.”

A number of years back, Chuck was approached by a symphony cellist, David Teie, who proposed composing music specific for different species. The pair started with music for cotton-top tamarin monkeys — a common monkey used for lab experiments in the field of psychology, with which Chuck had already done some research.

They made music that was pitched up so that it was in the auditory range of the tamarins, and sped up so it was closer to their resting heart rate. They found the monkeys found the chill-out music, and got amped up from the music designed to do so.

“So one of the characteristics of calming music is that it’s long slow notes, often in a descending pattern,” explained Chuck, “And a typical aspect of rock music is that it’s dissonant, and there’s a lot of what we would call staccato… these very quick, short, sharp notes.”

So, do animals appreciate music? To quote one review of the available science, the most nuanced answer is that it may “depend on the species and the type of music.” So if animals don’t seem to like music, perhaps it’s just that they don’t like YOUR music.

Just like teenagers.

Sam Evans-Brown, is host of NHPR’s Outside/In which you can subscribe to where-ever you get your podcasts. If you’d like to submit a question you can record it as a voice memo on your smartphone and send it to oustidein@nhpr.org, OR call the hotline, 1-844-GO-OTTER, OR submit it here.

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