Animal musicality: 9 unexpected effects of music on animals © Getty Images

Nine unexpected effects of music on animals

There have been numerous studies into the effect that music has on animals, finding some acquired tastes along the way. Here are a few of the more unusual effects that music has on the animal kingdom.

Do animals like music? Judging by the howls of anguish coming from my pet dog during band practice in my youth, the answer is probably not (although who knows, maybe he was auditioning for lead singer – it would have been an improvement). But that doesn’t mean music doesn’t affect animals in some way or another.

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In fact, there have been numerous studies into the effect that music has on animals (not to be confused with zoomusicology, which is the study of the music of animals), finding some acquired tastes along the way. Here are a few of the more unusual effects that music has on the animal kingdom.

Mosquitos listening to dubstep eat less and have less sex

DJ Skrillex performs at the Samsung Galaxy S III Launch hosted by Ashley Greene at Skylight Studios on June 20, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Samsung)
Skrillex – loved by dubsteppers, loathed by mosquitos (and grandparents) © Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Samsung

Dubstep – floor filler or ear bleeder? Whatever your opinion on this intense form of electronic dance music, music by the crown prince of dubstep, Skrillex, can protect against mosquito bites.

In a recent study, female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes that were ‘entertained’ by the song Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites landed on their host less frequently and attacked much later than mosquitoes without music.

On top of that – perhaps unsurprisingly, given how far removed dubstep is from the smooth, sultry sound of someone like Barry White – the mosquitoes had far less sex when dubstep was playing.

Male mosquitoes identify females by the characteristically lower buzzing of their wings. The male and female then perform a courtship ritual, raising the frequency of the sound they produce until they match. The study suggests that this process was disrupted by playing the dubstep track.

The researchers believe that electronic music could provide a new method of personal protection against Aedes aegypti, also known as the yellow fever mosquito, which is responsible for spreading the dengue and Zika viruses.

While dubstep might not be the right music for a relaxing day at the beach, it could be better than the buzzing of mosquitoes preparing to strike.

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Cats respond to music written specifically for them

Despite what the internet would have you believe, cats can’t actually play the piano. But, if they could, they would probably write songs that sound nothing like what we consider music.

A 2015 study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that while cats are happy to ignore regular ‘human’ music, they are highly responsive to music that is written especially for felines.

“We are not actually replicating cat sounds,” said lead author Charles Snowdon, “we are trying to create music with a pitch and tempo that appeals to cats.”

By playing two specially written ‘cat’ songs, one based on the tempo of purring and the other on the suckling sound while feeding, the researchers found that cats showed more positive responses – such as purring, walking towards the speaker and rubbing against it – compared to when being played classical music.

Now that’s what I call miaow-sic!

A similar effect was seen when music was created specifically for cotton-top tamarins in Central and South America.

Parrots’ ability to talk helps them keep to a beat

What’s the last thing a drummer says before you kick them out of the band? “Let’s try one of my songs”.

Okay, it’s a terrible joke, especially given the fine selection of song-writing drummers out there (a bit of Phil anyone?). But if you wanted a member to the animal kingdom to keep a beat for you, it’s the ones that can actually say something that would be your best bet.

A 2009 Harvard study found that animals displaying vocal mimicry – so those that can copy sounds using their voice – were also the best at staying in time with musical rhythm, suggesting there may be an evolutionary link between the two.

And their test subjects came from a surprising source – YouTube. Yes, it turns out posting videos of your pet parrot popping some moves to Daft Punk can actually lead to something worthwhile.

The researchers slowed down videos of animals dancing so that they could accurately measure how close they were to matching a beat, and discovered 14 species of parrot, all capable of vocal mimicry, that showed convincing evidence they could match the beat.

“Our data suggests that some of the brain mechanisms needed for human dance originally evolved to allow us to imitate sound,” said lead scientist Adena Schachner.

If only we had moves like this little fella…

Mammals can keep a beat too

Whereas parrots’ ability to mimic vocals might give them an upper hand when it comes to beat matching, there are a few other animals that also have the ability to keep in time.

Chimps and bonobos would make fine DJs given their timekeeping skills and dextrous fingers, but if you’re looking for the animal with perfect rhythm, Ronan the sea lion is your pinniped.

By mixing up the tempo of Boogie Wonderland by Earth, Wind & Fire, they discovered Ronan was able to accurately keep in time with the varying speeds. By applying the physics of coupled oscillators – or two swinging pendulums to you and me – to her rhythmic bobbing, the researchers suggest that she is able to keep time in the same way humans do.

Some would say it is nearly impossible not to get down and shake your hips to this excellent example of disco boogie grooviness, but the study suggests that the neural underpinnings of beat-keeping may be more ancient and widespread than previously thought.

Cows produce more milk when listening to slower music

We all have a favourite genre of music to listen to if we want to get our heads down and focus (mine sounds a little something like this), and it turns out the animal kingdom is no different – if you’re a cow.

A 2001 study from the University of Leicester exposed a 1,000-strong herd of cows to music of differing tempos. The music was broadly categorised into slow (under 100 beats per minute), featuring the likes of Everybody Hurts by R.E.M or Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, and fast (over 120 beats per minute), subjecting the poor bovines to Jamiroquai’s Space Cowboy and The Wonder Stuff’s Size of a Cow (groan).

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the cows preferred the gentler timbres over a 12-hour period, probably because, like us humans, the slower pace is more relaxing. The upshot of this is that their milk yield rose by 3 per cent, producing 0.73 litres more milk a day.

Whatever gets you in the moooo-d

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Sharks appear scarier if accompanied by ominous music

“Duunnn dunnn… duuuunnnn duun…” So, sharks. Scary, right? Well if you had the theme tune to Jaws going on in the background then yeah, definitely.

But researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego discovered that playing ominous music while watching videos of these fangy fish understandably made them appear more terrifying.

On the other hand, if participants of the study watched the sharks with no music, or even a jaunty tune in the background, they felt much more positive feelings towards the animals.

Although this isn’t strictly the effect of music on the shark, according to Andrew Nosal, lead author of the study, this sort of doom-laden music can affect conservation efforts to protect them.

“Given that nature documentaries are often regarded as objective and authoritative sources of information, it is critical that documentary filmmakers and viewers are aware of how the soundtrack can affect the interpretation of the educational content.”

Still, there is no excuse for this blood-curdling shark song.

Crocodiles are fans of classical, probably dinosaurs would have been too

Nile crocodile © iStock
Wonder if they like ‘Nile’ Rodgers too 🤔 © iStock

What happens when you play a crocodile classical music? Pretty much the same as in birds and mammals according to a 2018 study by the Department of Biopsychology at Ruhr-Universität Bochum, who found that a crocodile brain activates to complex stimuli in the same way.

Why is this interesting? First, because crocodiles are one of the most ancient species of vertebrates, and provide a link between dinosaurs and birds today, providing clues as to how the nervous system evolved.

Second, they tested crocodile brain signals by putting the half-tonne reptiles, wielding the strongest bite in the animal kingdom, in an fMRI machine! Having to “overcome a number of technical obstacles” as one researcher put it, sounds like the least of their problems.

Rather them than us.

Music makes rats problem-gamblers

If you’ve ever been to a casino, the flashing lights and jolly music aren’t just for distraction and entertainment; they might actually encourage you to gamble more. That is if you’re a rat.

A 2016 Canadian study discovered that rats are pretty good at avoiding risky situations when it comes to gambling for sugary treats, but that risk aversion goes out of the window when you play music and flash lights at them.

To test this, the researchers gave the rats a drug that blocked the dopamine receptor linked to addiction, and lo and behold, they were suddenly able to resist the urge to gamble their goodies away at the sound of a bing or a tingle.

Of course, if you do happen to find a rat at a casino, it’s probably a good idea to call pest control.

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Kennelled dogs are happiest when listening to soft rock and reggae

Holidays – sunshine, sand, and slurping icy drinks by the sea. Sounds like a treat for me, but for poor old Fido cooped up in a kennel back at home, things aren’t quite so relaxing.

Kennels are a necessary evil for dog owners, and even the most zen of dog homes are likely to produce some level of stress in the poor pooch. But according to a 2016 study by the University of Glasgow, one way to makes these hound hotels more hospitable is to play background music.

The researchers played the dogs a variety of different musical genres, and discovered that whichever music was played, they were more relaxed and spent more time chilling out lying down. But if you really want to give kennelled dogs a relaxing vibe, the researchers found that the dogs’ Heart Rate Variability was significantly higher, a sign of decreased stress levels, when listening to soft rock and reggae.

Alternatively, if Bob Marley isn’t really your dog’s thing, you could also try playing them audio books for dogs.


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