What Music Do Pets Prefer?

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Rather than liking classical or rock animals march to the beat of a different drum altogether.
Corbis

THE GIST

- Animals like species-specific music that is designed using the pitches, tones and tempos that are familiar to them.

- To animals, human music falls into a grating, unrecognizable category.

- Leaving on classical music or soothing music for your pets might not be best for them.

Many pet owners leave their home radios playing all day for the listening pleasure of their dogs and cats. Station choices vary. "We have a very human tendency to project onto our pets and assume that they will like what we like," said Charles Snowdon, an authority on the musical preferences of animals. "People assume that if they like Mozart, their dog will like Mozart. If they like rock music, they say their dog prefers rock."

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Against the conventional wisdom that music is a uniquely human phenomenon, ongoing research shows that animals actually do have the capacity for music. But rather than liking classical or rock, Snowdon, an animal psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has discovered that animals march to the beat of a different drum altogether. They enjoy what he calls "species-specific music": tunes specially designed using the pitches, tones and tempos that are familiar to their particular species.

With no pun intended, music is all about scale: Humans like music that falls within our acoustic and vocal range, uses tones we understand, and progresses at a tempo similar to that of our heartbeats. A tune pitched too high or low sounds grating or ungraspable, and music too fast or slow is unrecognizable as such.

To animals, human music falls into that grating, unrecognizable category. With vocal ranges and heart rates very different from ours, they simply aren't wired to enjoy songs that are tailored for our ears. Studies show that animals generally respond to human music with a total lack of interest. With this general rule in mind, Snowdon has worked with cellist and composer David Teie to compose music that is tailored to suit them.

Back in 2009, the researchers composed two songs for tamarins — monkeys with vocalizations three octaves higher than our own and heart rates twice as fast. The songs sound shrill and unpleasant to us, but they seem to be music to the monkeys' ears. The song modeled on excited monkey tones and a fast tempo made the tamarins visibly agitated and active. By contrast, they calmed down and became unusually social in response to a "tamarin ballad," which incorporated happy monkey tones and a slower tempo.

Snowdon and Teie have moved on to composing music for cats, and studying how they respond to it.

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