Do Dogs Perceive Music As Humans Do?
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.
A CASE IN POINT
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 Geographic.com 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?
DO YOU BELIEVE DOGS RELATE TO MUSIC?
© 2012 Bob Bamberg