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.
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.