Fish Listen to Music, Prefer Bach

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Goldfish not only listen to music, but they also can distinguish one composer from another, a new study finds.

The paper adds to the growing body of evidence that many different animals understand music.

Lead author Kazutaka Shinozuka of Keio University’s Department of Psychology told Discovery News that “goldfish could detect complex properties of sounds, such as pitch and timbre.”

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For the study, published in the journal Behavioural Processes, Shinozuka and colleagues Haruka Ono and Shigeru Watanabe played two pieces of classical music near goldfish in a tank. The pieces were Toccata and Fugue in D minor by Johann Sebastian Bach and The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky.

The scientists trained the fish to gnaw on a little bead hanging on a filament in the water. Half of the fish were trained with food to gnaw whenever Bach played and the other half were taught to gnaw whenever Stravinsky music was on. The goldfish aced the test, easily distinguishing the two composers and getting a belly full of food in the process.

The fish were more interested in the vittles than the music, but earlier studies on pigeons and songbirds suggest that Bach is the preferred choice, at least for birds.

“These pieces can be classified as classical (Bach) and modern (Stravinsky) music,” Shinozuka explained. “Previously we demonstrated that Java sparrows preferred classical over modern music. Also, we demonstrated Java sparrows could discriminate between consonance and dissonance.”

“Generally speaking,” he added, “modern music includes much dissonance. Thus, although there is no direct evidence, Java sparrows might prefer classical music because of less dissonance.”