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Do Dogs Perceive Music As Humans Do?

Updated on October 14, 2017
Bob Bamberg profile image

Bob has been in the pet supply business and writing about pets, livestock, and wildlife in a career that spans three decades.


An Inquiring Mind Muddies The Water

When animals are exposed to human music, do they perceive it subjectively as we do, or is it simply ambient noise? In researching the subject I found many examples of conflicting theories and conclusions, and many examples that cynics like me can find fault with.


The Sunday, November 25, 2012 San Francisco Chronicle reprinted an article by Rob Stein of the Washington Post that cites a study undertaken by psychologist Charles Snowden of the University of Wisconsin at Madison and cellist David Teie of the National Symphony Orchestra.

The article stated that “the study provided some of the first evidence that humans are not the only species whose heartstrings are pulled by music.” Please join the cynic in me and remember that line.

This would also be a good point at which I disclose that I'm inherently suspicious of "studies." Study data can be manipulated and fabricated to accommodate an agenda, and some well-respected scientists have been discredited and ostracized for doing so.


Teie studied Snowden’s collection of calls of the cotton top tamarin, a small primate found in Central and South America, then sought to musically duplicate two types of tamarin calls: an alarm call and a call the tamarins use when things are cool.

"My idea was, there's no reason for Barber's 'Adagio for Strings' to bring tears to the eyes of a tamarin," Teie said. "So I made a special kind of music just for them."

Teie wrote and recorded the songs on his cello, then speeded them up to match the tempo and frequency of the tamarin calls.

“As expected, the human songs had no apparent effect on the monkeys' behavior or emotions. In contrast, after hearing the tamarin compositions designed to elicit anxiety, the monkeys clearly displayed more signs of that emotion, such as looking around, sticking out their tongues and shaking their heads.

Similarly, they showed clear signs of calming down - slowing down their activities, eating, etc. - after hearing the ballads Teie composed for them.”

OK, that’s all well and good and stuff; Teie can make music that sounds like monkey calls.

But I invite you to join this cynic and recall that line above that said the study “provided some of the first evidence that humans are not the only species whose heartstrings are pulled by music.”


Excuse me for asking, but were the tamarins responding to “music” or to sounds similar to calls their species makes under certain situations?

If one were to use a musical instrument to replicate the distress call of an injured gazelle, would it not pique the interest of a cheetah?

And was the cheetah’s heart string’s pulled by the music or was its food response tweaked?

And did you catch the line that stated: “As expected, the human songs had no apparent effect on the monkeys' behavior or emotions.”

That conclusion seems to be validated in an article in DiscoveryNews by Natalie Wolchover, entitled “What Music Do Pets Prefer” which states: “Studies show that animals generally respond to human music with a total lack of interest.”

But, the article goes on to quote a researcher in Belfast who draws a different conclusion from her own research.

“Indeed, some dogs do appear to respond emotionally to human music. Research led by Deborah Wells, a psychologist at Queen's University Belfast, shows that dogs can discern between human music of different genres.

"Our own research has shown that dogs certainly behave differently in response to different types of music, e.g., showing behaviors more suggestive of relaxation in response to classical music and behaviors more suggestive of agitation in response to heavy metal music," Wells wrote in an email.”


Hold on, here comes the cynic again. Are the dogs “groovin’ to the tunes” or merely responding to sounds within various frequency ranges.

The frequency range of their hearing is far wider than our own, causing one to suggest that sounds at certain frequencies elicit a response from dogs because maybe that sound is irritating.

“The dogs responded differently to different types of music. When the dogs were played heavy metal music, they became quite agitated and began barking.

Popular music or human conversation did not produce behaviours noticeably different from having no sound at all."

Raise your hand if you, too, become agitated at heavy metal music. The reports I read didn’t indicate at what volume the heavy metal music was played to the dogs.

A volume that is comfortable to humans may be too much for a dog. Perhaps played at a fainter volume, the dogs would not have become agitated and barked.

And did you catch this line that almost slips through: "Popular music or human conversation did not produce behaviors noticeably different from having no sound at all."

Maybe they just couldn't bring themselves to say the dogs were oblivious to popular music.

And one can’t ignore these quotes, from a National article by Jen Mapes entitled “Do Animals Have An Innate Sense Of Music:”

“However, the definition of “music,” cautioned Ron Hoy, professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University, should be examined thoroughly before being used to describe particular sounds.

Although the term “music” has been liberally applied…to composer John Cage’s “4'33''”, (4 minutes, 33 seconds of silence, for example)…Hoy argues that all concepts of music return to the human view of what is or is not “musical”

“Music,” said Hoy, “is strictly an anthropological concept.” Humans find beauty in certain sounds and dub them music,” he said.”

There’s no shortage of opinions by pet owners. Talk to anyone who owns a dog or cat and you'll find those who will know that their animals have musical preferences. I had one guy tell me that his dog loved Barry Manilow and hated John Tesh.


Perception Is Reality

Lay people, of course, don’t conduct scientific studies. Their evidence is anecdotal and subject to perception.

Case in point: A woman I know spends her summers mostly in panic mode because a garter snake, on most days, chooses to sun itself on her front steps.

The garter snake, to her, is a serious threat to her safety but she came up with a solution to keep the serpent calm and pacified.

She opens the window next to the stairs, places a speaker from her stereo on the sill, and pipes soothing classical music into the air.

It works. She has been doing it for years and the snake (and probably by now, its progeny) hasn’t shown any signs of aggression.

I don’t have the heart to tell her that snakes are deaf. Perception is reality. Her late husband, much to his amusement, did know that and carried the secret to his grave.

There were several instances where researchers did feel that dogs were calmed by classical music, but it seems all classical music may not have the same calming effect.

In order to soothe, it’s believed that the music must have a soothing dynamic from start to finish and transition calmly within and between pieces. Not all classical music does that.

What Say You?

I tried all kinds of key words in a Google search to find scientific sites. I even had the name of one peer review journal that contained an article I wanted to read, and when I typed it as a URL, another publication came up, and when I Googled it, it didn’t show up among other journals with the same, or similar, names.

There was no shortage of sites selling musical CD’s for pets and other sites I didn’t consider to be objective, reliable sources. I found a lot of material quoting credible sources but I was frequently frustrated in finding the actual sources in the context quoted.

Personally, I’m on the side that leans towards the theory that human music is ambient noise to animals. They may react to music, but not in a way that denotes preferences in musical style.

Depending upon the frequency range of the music, they may experience anything from tranquility to agitation, but their eardrums, not their heartstrings, make the call, in my opinion. What say you?


See results

© 2012 Bob Bamberg


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    • Bob Bamberg profile imageAUTHOR

      Bob Bamberg 

      4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      When the time is right, the hub will come, Jaye, and it will be a good one, I'm sure. Other pet owners may be facing the same situation some day and your experience will be most helpful. Regards, Bob.

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 

      4 years ago from Deep South, USA

      Thanks for your gracious and thoughtful response, Bob. The past couple of years have been rough for my dog and for me. Making the decision to have her eyes removed was especially difficult, but I believe it was the correct one even though there were a couple of issues related to the surgery that I wish I'd known in advance. I plan to write a hub about the surgery, but it's taking a little distance before I can do it. Perhaps in a couple more months....

      I'm glad you enjoyed both family and feasting with family this Thanksgiving. It's one of those holidays where we seem to have permission to overeat, and the special dishes that are part of our traditions taste better in the company of our loved ones. At least, that's the way I always view it!


    • Bob Bamberg profile imageAUTHOR

      Bob Bamberg 

      4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Jaye, nice to hear from you again. I had a nice Thanksgiving with lots of family gathered...I hope you had a nice Thanksgiving as well. I've been home a couple of hours and it's been about 4 hours since I ate...or should I say stopped eating...and I still feel stuffed. No snacking tonight for sure.

      Your comment is most interesting. I'm so sorry to learn that your dog has gone blind. Dogs handle most handicaps as if they weren't handicapped, but blindness is a little different since a valuable sense has been taken from them. Her trauma is probably compounded by the fact that she had a nervous disposition to begin with, and may be further compounded by her age. There's a chance that CCD (canine cognitive dysfunction) might be factoring as well.

      Regarding "she might feel getting food according to her internal clock seemed the only influence she had left. Does that seem reasonable to you?" Yes, that does seem reasonable. One of the tenets that dogs live by is "s/he who controls the resources is the boss." If a dog is being fed on their terms, they value that.

      I agree with you on all the rest of your comment. If it works for your dog, that's wonderful and it doesn't need to be explained or justified. She may relate the sounds and your presence to comfortable situations when she was sighted, and be calmed by those.

      The harsh sounds that caused her to jump down and leave the room probably had to do with discomfort caused by the sounds' frequency swings and extremes. Sounds that were comfortable within her frequency range probably didn't matter as much to her as your presence. I still believe it would have been perceived as ambient noise, but noise nonetheless, and evidence that she's not alone.

      We "armchair scientists" still tend to take a fairly simplistic look at things. When I was researching data for this hub, I got way in over my the point where I had to Google stuff to find out what other stuff meant. And even then, the explanations were often over my head.

      Lay people who are being realistic realize there's only so much of a complicated science they can understand from the perspective of their lay knowledge. I went as far as I could go and still couldn't do any better than this hub. I'm sure the subject is far more complicated than would appear here.

      I noticed that even the scientists who supported the theory that dogs perceive music as music couldn't make strong arguments, and that empirical evidence tended to trump their studies. And again, study data can be manipulated and fabricated to support an agenda, so I take it all with a grain of salt.

      Thanks for contributing your update. As with any positive result, it could bring hope to others who might be facing similar situations with their dogs. Best wishes for the holiday season, Bob.

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 

      4 years ago from Deep South, USA

      Hello again, Bob. Here I am with an update. Since my last reply to this hub, my dog went blind from chronic KCS because the treatment didn't work to reverse it. The blindness happened even though I applied a thick ophthalmic protective ointment to her eyes every 2-3 hours day and (yes) night to prevent ulcers. She had a nervous temperament to begin with, but going blind was obviously a difficult adjustment for her--and for me, as her housemate.

      A year after she was diagnosed as blind, she had enucleation surgery to prevent the possibility of pain (in spite of all that ointment), and that was another trauma for her. She was in the animal hospital for a week, and when she returned home seemed to be back at square one as far as finding her way around her environment again without running into things. She also began barking a lot, which is one of the behaviors experts warn to expect from older dogs that lose their vision. (The other one is to bark less, but that was too much to expect from my girl! Ha-ha.) Added to that, she became more clingy, following me around everywhere, and demanding with regard to her feeding schedule. I suppose I'm guilty of anthropomorphizing her with this thought, but it occurred to me she'd lost so much that she might feel getting food according to her internal clock seemed the only influence she had left. Does that seem reasonable to you?

      Since the first evidence that she was going blind appeared, she hates for me to leave her alone in the house. What I'm about to reveal about how I handle that situation will probably leave you on the floor laughing, but it works so I don't care WHY it works or if there's no scientific evidence that it should.

      When I'm preparing to leave for about an hour, I place her on the den sofa with her comforting toys and a pillow. She likes to lie on the sofa beside me in the evenings if I watch a video even though she can't see anything. I suppose a combination of my presence and the sound of the video comforts her because she is more restless if I simply sit on the sofa and read. I have noticed that any video that includes loud (especially heavy metal or a loud, thumping bass) music causes her to jump down from the sofa and go to another room. That's about the only reason she will leave her place on the sofa beside me.

      After some experimentation, I've found that she settles down best when I play the original "Winnie, the Pooh" movie. (Go ahead and laugh.) That's the go-to video for when my absences will last about an hour, such as a trip to the grocery store.

      If I'll be gone longer, I play the slow-tempo version of "Through a Dog's Ear" CD on loop. As you know, this is selected classical music with a soothing sound and the tempo slowed from the original composition. Whatever the reason--and even if it only applies to my dog and not to others--this CD calms her like nothing else. As I said, even if the protocol for the study didn't meet the highest scientific standards, and even if this music doesn't work for another dog in the world, it keeps my dog calm until I return. That's all that matters to me because I've seen her become distraught and want to prevent it if possible.

      While I am often skeptical of scientific studies that don't use the appropriate strict protocol and results seem more subjective than objective, in the instances of "Winnie, the Pooh" (the original movie) and "Through a Dog's Ear" CD, the science doesn't matter to me at all. Having lived through more than two harrowing years of my dog's serious health issues and her change in temperament (and clinging, needy behavior) in the aftermath, these two things work to sooth her and allow more sanity in my life. Perhaps my dog's results are aberrations, but I don't care. When any method provides the desired occurrence repeatedly, I keep using scientific proof required. Trust me--I've observed her enough to know how these two examples of music affect her with regard to calmness. I've even played both when I was remaining at home to see for myself if any change occurred while the music played. It did not. It may be for the wrong reasons, but I'm sold on both "Winnie, the Pooh" (and learning all the lyrics again!) and "Through a Dog's Ear."

      By the way, there is a special "Through a Dog's Ear" CD to play in the car on the way to the vet's and the groomer's that doesn't make the driver sleepy. I've found that this music is always calming to me and prevents my proclivity to anger (road rage, if you will) toward other drivers who cut dangerously close in front of my car or other rude and dangerous driving actions. (There are a lot of obviously crazy drivers where I live, and I normally have no patience with them.) Whatever the reason, this music keeps me from overreacting, so I play it every time I'm in the car. Of course, I'm human, so perhaps this is not an unexpected result.

      Have a happy Thanksgiving, Bob, and good luck with the weight loss scheme after the holidays end.


    • Bob Bamberg profile imageAUTHOR

      Bob Bamberg 

      4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Thanks for visiting us here in the colonies, M L Morgan, I'm glad you enjoyed the hub. It's a debate that will undoubtedly rage on and it's interesting to hear others' point of view. Nice to have you stop by. Regards, Bob

    • profile image

      M L Morgan 

      4 years ago

      Great hub. I have often wondered about this and have even consciously selected music that I thought would relax my cats. Some really useful info here! Thanks x

    • Bob Bamberg profile imageAUTHOR

      Bob Bamberg 

      6 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hey, Audrey, great to hear from you! I hope you're feeling well and hope the CPAP continues to keep the SA under control. I went through it, but the SA didn't hit me hard like it did you. I've gained some weight, though (damn, I hate it when that happens), and some of the snoring has returned, although my wife says my breathing isn't bad.

      I'll focus on losing the weight, though, and things will be cool again. I lost 53 pounds five years ago and just gained 15 of it back within the past 6 or 8 months. I'll return to behaving myself...after the holidays.

      OK, dogs and music. You're a musician and a vocalist, and that, most objective observers would probably agree, automatically brings a bias to your study...or at least casts a shadow of doubt over any claim of objectivity.

      That having been said, you report that you're convinced that "dogs respond to music." Are you saying their mood changes with the introduction of music or that they react to certain volumes and pitches?

      It's such a complex issue! I couldn't find any university studies, or stuff from agencies such as NIH or CDC. I found references to studies, but could never get to the study itself.

      My own observations (hardly a scientific study) leave me believing that music is just ambient noise to our four-legged family members. I have seen dogs react, in a way that I thought showed discomfort, to certain extremes...say in percussion, strings or horns.

      My cat would sleep through a Yanni CD, and he's all over the place. She did slink quickly out of the room once when she heard the dueling violins in "Within Attraction" on his Live At The Acropolis" CD. But, that's one of my faves, so I probably had the volume a little louder than necessary.

      I'd be interested in more details of the study you conducted. Is there such a hub on the horizon?

      Thanks again for contributing to the comment stream. You always provide food for thought and it's very much appreciated. I'm glad that you stopped by. Regards, Bob

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      6 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      I recently did a study (a small one) on this very topic. I am convinced that dogs respond to music. (My research was on dogs only.) Even in my own home my dog leisurely goes to the piano when it is being played and lies down underneath (a grand piano) and stays as long as those vibrations are being transmitted.

      I've also learned that plants respond to music including singing. Hmmm. I wonder if rocks do the same? :) Loving your hubs. I'm a big fan!

    • Bob Bamberg profile imageAUTHOR

      Bob Bamberg 

      6 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi DrMark, nice to see you, as always. Most people erroneously believe the New York DJ Alan Freid coined the phrase rock 'n roll back in the 50's, while we enlightened, hip, chique and trendy types know that it was the behavior of pet rocks exposed to the music of Lawrence Welk and Mitch Miller & The Gang that gave way to the term.

      One of my customers has a dog that got antsy when the children next door were squealing and playing loudly outside. She says that playing classical music had a calming effect on the dog.

      She and Jaye are the only people I'm personally aware of who report a positive result, but it's not like I've asked a lot of people about it. I've personally observed dogs...and my own cat...who were in the room where music was being played and they seemed oblivious to it.

      I think for most pet owners, the debate is a conflict between romance, perception and science. It would be interesting to see how it plays out, but I doubt it will in my lifetime. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Regards, Bob

    • DrMark1961 profile image

      Dr Mark 

      6 years ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

      The problem with anecdotal evidence is that it is so...anecdotal. Is Jaye´s dog responding to the music, or is she less stressed out because she has to go in for visits all the time due to her KCS? My personal feeling is that the music is working, but there is no way to prove it. My personal feeling is that the thundershirt just squeezes a dog and makes them freeze up, but if you tell mary615 that (a hubber who has seen improvement using the thundershirt on her dog) she would not accept it. Another anecdote. Sometime that is the best we can do.

      At least we are sure that pet rocks do not respond to music. Or do they??????

    • Bob Bamberg profile imageAUTHOR

      Bob Bamberg 

      6 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi again, Jaye. I'm a stubborn cynic and Through A Dog's Ear didn't do much to alter that. They listed Wagner's name in the credits but didn't give details of her study. They did more on Wells, including this: "Although the specific effect of classical music on dogs remains unknown, the findings from this study suggest that it may, as in humans, have a calming influence." To me, the keys are "remains unknown" and the words "suggest" and "may."

      They're a site that's in the business of selling CD's so, to me, that takes them down a couple of notches on the credibility scale. I wonder about things like, "What state were the dogs in prior to the start of the music."

      They described them as dogs with separation anxiety, thunder phobia, anxiety with vet visits, etc., but were they under the influence of those stressors during the studies?

      I really would like to find Wagner's study and her summary, not someone else's reporting of her findings.

      While not a hot button issue or one that I'm particularly passionate about, I still find it a very interesting debate; and the observations of folks like yourself make it interestinger and interestinger.

      To me, Through A Dog's Ear is somewhat like the Thunder Shirt. It talks a good story and has produced some positive results, but the majority of feedback is that it doesn't work most of the time.

      Another example is DAP and CAP, dog and cat appeasing pheromones. Some owners report positive results, but most don't. Some vets I talk to, who recommend and sell DAP/CAP report similar feedback.

      The way technology advances, I wouldn't be surprised if my 3 year old grandson lives long enough to see technology that parallels the "Vulcan Mind Meld" where they'll be able to display, in words and pictures on a screen, what's going on inside the heads of animals.

    • Bob Bamberg profile imageAUTHOR

      Bob Bamberg 

      6 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Jaye, thanks for contributing your observations and experiences. Does the music your dog reacts to transition smoothly within and between pieces? That seems to be a key.

      I read something a couple of weeks ago that referred to Dr. Wagner's findings and what I read was interesting. I tried to find the study and couldn't, and I also went on Ohio State's website and they had nothing on it. They just listed her on the faculty roster. I'll go to the site you mentioned. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Regards, Bob

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 

      6 years ago from Deep South, USA

      Hi, Bob....While dogs and other animals may not "groove" to the music, I'm convinced that certain types of music do exercise an effect on them. After reading about the research of Deborah L. Wells, L. Graham and P.G. Hepper ("The Influence of Auditory Stimulation on the Behavior of Dogs Housed in a Rescue Shelter") and the work their findings encouraged Joshua Leeds, music producer, and Lisa Spector, pianist, to produce, psycho-accoustic music for calming dogs (the "From a Dog's Ear" series), I purchased three of the CDs.

      Dr. Susan Wagner, a respected veterinary neurologist and research director at Ohio State University Veterinary College, coordinated two phases of testing more than 150 dogs with this music and documented the effects. You can read the complete research analysis of the canine studies at It makes for fascinating reading--at least, I was fascinated by the findings.

      The music on the main CD for calming dogs consists of sections of classical pieces played at a slower tempo than usual. My own dog has a somewhat nervous temperament, and she's never liked going to the vet clinic. (What dog does, after the initial visit with its poking and prodding?) Since she was diagnosed with a chronic medical disorder this past summer, it's been necessary to take her to see the vet frequently for checkups of her condition. I bought the first "From a Dog's Ear" CD to see if it could help calm her before visits. Then I bought the one to play in the car because it is not so slow that it threatens to put me (the driver) to sleep! I use the calming one for about an hour before we leave the house and play the car CD while we are in transit. There is a third CD that I simply enjoy listening to--it has a pleasant effect on humans, too. It's called "Music for the Canine Household", but you needn't have a dog around to listen to it.

      Since I began playing this music for my dog, I can tell the difference in her reaction to the clinic. While she still trembles a bit when we arrive, she doesn't shake so hard she can barely walk as we enter the waiting room (as previously). This, to me, is an improvement and an indication that music can, indeed, have an effect on dogs.

      I already knew that she doesn't like certain loud, strident music played on movies that I watch at home, so I always turn down the sound or mute it if she's in the room with me. Actually, the same sounds that she obviously finds uncomfortable--which may be simply because dogs hear sounds so much better than humans--are the same ones that I don't like, either.

      While I don't believe I'll ever find my dog listening to any music with an expression that denotes appreciation, I do believe that the music of "Through a Dog's Ear" does have a positive, calming effect on her.



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