Does Music Have Charms to Soothe the Worried Beast?

Introduction

Yes, I know the title is a misquotation of the original line, but I couldn’t resist.

The idea that music might be useful in calming animals or otherwise influencing their mood and behavior is not new, but there seems to have been increased interest in it lately in veterinary medicine, specifically in the use of music to reduce anxiety and stress in hospitalized animals. Given the profound effect music has on human emotions, it is reasonable to ask the question, could animals experience the same kind of emotional effects and could music help soothe them in times of stress? As a veterinarian, a musician (well, I play mandolin a bit, anyway), and a former primatologist working in environmental enrichment, I find this an intriguing idea.

I’m sure, though, that it will come as no surprise to regular readers that I have some skepticism about the idea as well. I know from my own behavior research work and clinical veterinary practice that it is extremely difficult to consistently and objectively define and measure stress and mood in non-human animals. I also know that it is all too easy to assume that the world seems much the same to our animal companions as it seems to us, and that they share our likes and dislikes. Finally, I also know that nothing in medicine is free, and if music has meaningful benefits for our pets and patients, it likely has some risks as well.

Humans are unique in the extent to which they deliberately create patterns of sounds, often using tools made for that purpose, with the specific intent of inducing emotional responses in others of our species. Arguably, many species create music of a sort. Birds, humpback whales, and others, can create quite complex and engaging sound patterns. But I think it is fair to say that these differ in many ways from the type of music humans create and the purposes these sounds serve. So I think it fair to be cautious in assuming other animals will perceive or respond to human music as we do.

And as we all know, music is incredible in its variety, with dramatic differences in musical styles and tastes between cultures, generations, and individuals. What I find energizing or entertaining, my wife may find grating and annoying. So again, we should be careful in making confident generalizations about what other animals may like or dislike, or whether music will have the kinds of effects on them we anticipate. Still, the relationship between music and behavior, physical stress, and even health is worth exploring.

What’s the Evidence?

There are quite a few studies looking at the effect of various sounds, including music, on a variety of animal species. Many of these involve laboratory animals, such as rodents and primates. There are also a few looking at livestock species and dogs. A nice narrative review of this literature was published not long ago in the journal Lab Animal:

Alworth LC, Buerkle SC. The effects of music on animal physiology, behavior and welfare.  Lab Anim (NY). 2013 Feb;42(2):54-61.

The clearest answer that comes out of this review to the question, “Does music have beneficial effects on animals?” is, “It depends.” A wide variety of physiologic and behavioral responses to various types of musical stimuli have been observed, and they seem to vary not only from species to species but with the type of music and even with the particular study. And while many of the results are consistent with the investigator’s expectations, there are plenty of findings that were surprising. Music can have effects that might be beneficial or harmful or, in some cases, it might have no measurable effects at all.

As an example of the variety of results, one set of studies showed that playing Mozart reduced blood pressure in hypertensive rats. However, other studies found no effect of Mozart on blood pressure. This may have been due to the use of different specific pieces of music, to differ methods of measuring blood pressure, to differences in the types of rats used, or to any of a hundred other differences between the studies.

Similarly, different types of music seem to have different effects, but the differences don’t always form a clear, predictable pattern. In general, “quieter” types of music, such as classical or “New Age” music seem to reduce physiologic and behavioral responses associated with stress, and other genres either have no effect or may even worsen these measures. However, some studies looking at classical music find no effects, or effects for some composers and not others, and other studies find positive effects from other genres, or even white noise.

Finally, apart from the variety in results of different studies, there are serious problems with the way the effects of music are measured and interpreted. Most of the studies in dogs, for example, contain few of the usual controls for bias and error so important in making scientific research results reliable. Subjects are often chosen and allocated to different groups by convenience rather than randomly, and the investigators observing and recording behaviors are rarely blinded to the music condition.

If you think classical music is more likely to calm dogs than country music and you watch dogs and note their behavior while you and they listen to each kind of music, it is quite likely you will unconsciously interpret what you see and what you think it means through the filter of your own expectations. This is why, after all, controlled scientific research is necessary in the first place.

The authors of this review provide what I think is a very fair summary of what we know so far:

The studies reviewed in this paper show that music can affect the physiology, production, and behavior of multiple non-human species and provide evidence that some effects of music exposure are similar between humans and animals. The studies identify the potential for music to benefit the welfare of animals in many captive environments…As the reviewed studies show, however, the effects of music exposure are not the same for all music styles, animal species, or situations, and playing music for captive species has the potential to increase stress or impair welfare. Therefore, each situation should be considered individually and the outcome evaluated for positive and negative effects.

Bottom Line

The best summary of what we know now about the effects of music on animals comes again from the review cited above:

The studies described above support the idea that physiological and neurochemical changes can result from music exposure. Music’s ability to improve learning and memory and diminish stress suggests that music can result in positive physiologic effects. Other studies, however, suggest that music has no observable effect or can have a detrimental effect on animals. There is not yet sufficient evidence to suggest that animals react physically to music in a way that can be manipulated predictably and consistently.

This means that while it is very likely some kinds of music can be beneficial to our pets and veterinary patients under some circumstances, the devil is, as usual, in the details, and we don’t know much about the details yet. It is reasonable to experiment with music in veterinary environments, especially with more quiet, instrumental genres, but we must try to develop objective measures of the effect to be sure we are not imply wasting our effort or, even worse, actually adding stress for our patients.

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5 Responses to Does Music Have Charms to Soothe the Worried Beast?

  1. Beccy Higman says:

    We use music, specifically rock , reggae or ska, ie music with a strong beat, to mask the sounds of fireworks at New Year and around November 5th (Guy Fawkes Night). The dogs are used to our tastes and do not find the music upsetting, but the fireworks do distress them, so this is a good solution. But it isn’t really the kind of use of music you are discussing here.

  2. Jen Robinson says:

    You may have missed a pair of relevant studies, as described in:
    https://thesciencedog.wordpress.com/2014/04/28/its-all-rock-and-roll-to-me/

    These studies both presence of music and type of music affect the behavior of kenneled dogs. Page concludes:

    1. Classical music apparently induces sleepiness in dogs (glad to learn that I am not alone in that respect). A response of increased relaxation/sleep is definitely a good thing, since anxious/stressed dogs are generally more active and spend less time relaxing than do non-stressed dogs.
    Heavy metal music is to be avoided with dogs as it appears to have induced stress, possibly severe stress, in kenneled dogs (again, good to learn, can’t stand the stuff, myself).

    References:

    Kogan LR, Schoenfeld-Tacher R, Simon AA. Behavioral effects of auditory stimulation on kenneled dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 2012; 7:268-275.
    Wells DL, Graham L, Hepper PG. The influence of auditory stimulation on the behavior of dogs housed in a rescue shelter. Animal Welfare 2002;11:385-393.

  3. Beccy Higman says:

    My dogs appear to like heavy metal, I suspect that if any music does work in a home context it would be strongly related to the tastes of the owners. I find the use of ‘classical music’ as a single category to be extraordinary given the huge range of music it covers in terms of tempo, volume, complexity of sound etc

  4. skeptvet says:

    Exactly. I’m sure one could condition a dog through positive reinforcement to have positive associations with almost any sound. But it seems unlikely that they would categorize human music into “genres” in the same way we do given all the obvious sensory and cognitive differences between our species and theirs.

  5. Jen Robinson says:

    In a boarding kennel, shelter, or vet practice you cannot count on any particular prior conditioning. Based on the source I quoted above, the (peer reviewed) journal articles are specify what they used to represent different genres. I don’t have the library resources to go to the primary sources . . . looks like there were differences between different selections within the genre. Some of the results were dramatic. Eg.

    Body shaking: Dogs spent dramatically more time shaking when listening to heavy metal music (38 to 71 %of the time, depending on the selection) than when listening to classical music (0.5 to 2.8 % of the time), the commercial selection (0.5 %) or no music at all (1.2 %). One particular heavy metal song caused dogs to shake the most – a whopping 71 % of the time. To put this in perspective, this means that, on average, dogs were showing nervous body shaking for 32 of the 45 minutes that they listened to this song.

    In my kennel days, we kept a radio on tuned to talk shows or news, on the assumption that human voice was a normal background for most house dogs.

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