A soft spotlight illuminates the faded wood finish of the bar stool on stage. Oh, the stories it could tell. Looking around, I see everyone waiting for the magic to begin. Waiting for the moment when the music will give them a rush or maybe dull their pain.
I glance across the room and in the corner is Ms. Maru seated at a candle lit table with her head resting on her paws. I start freaking out. What is my dog doing in a jazz club?
Am I hallucinating? No, just dreaming. Before dialing a psychic or trying to conjure up Freud, I decide that I have enough CSI episodes under my belt to figure out what this bizarre dream means.
I do know my heightened stress has been triggered by a life changing event this year. I got engaged and while I’m extremely excited and happy, my anxiety levels are soaring off the chart. The only thing that calms me is music.
But it’s not just any kind of music but the indie instrumental jazz that my fiancé plays. Now that I think about it even high-strung Maru falls asleep listening to the rhythmic sounds of the heavy base. It’s so unlike her visceral reaction to rap . . . agitated pacing and frenzied barking.
Here’s the million dollar question. What is Music to a Dog’s Ear?
It’s not the lyrics or the melody. It’s all about familiar and unfamiliar sounds. Charles Snowdon, renowned primatologist and expert on animal sounds, believes that they enjoy “species-specific music.” That is they respond to tunes that have pitches, tones, and tempos unique and familiar to their own species.
This theory results from his groundbreaking research on Tamarin monkeys with musician David Teie. While immune to human music these primates respond to “monkey music” based on their vocal repertoire (ie monkey calls) which consists of two emotions:
1) Threats and Fear
2) Safe and Happy.
Their research showed that an upset monkey spoke in quick beats and ascending pitch while a calm monkey spoke in long notes and a descending pitch.
Here are some audio samples that illustrate these findings.
The Voice of the Cotton-Top Tamarin (courtesy, Charles Snowdon)
Upset monkey is mobbing a human - noisy sounds & upward-trending pitch.
Same monkey calmed down after couple minutes – pitch is now descending.
Same calmed down monkey – reduced 3 octaves to match the human range of hearing. Notice the perfect musical intervals between the sounds.
Monkey Music (copyright, David Teie, University of Maryland)
Music based on fear and threat calls of the tamarin. Both the staccato beats and noise arouse anxious behavior.
A musical track that calms and soothes contains long, pure notes that use familiar musical scales.
It’s the same for humans. We enjoy music that falls within our acoustic & vocal ranges, use tones we understand and tempos that match our heart rates. A tune pitched too high or low sounds grating and music too fast or slow is unrecognizable.
So as much as we want to think our best friends share our taste in music, the bottom line is that dogs are simply not wired to enjoy the same songs we do.
Numerous research studies corroborate that dogs do, however, exhibit a common behavioral response to certain genres of music. One such study by Deborah Wells, an animal behaviorist at Queens University in Belfast, summed up universal findings:
- Classical music has a soothing effect on dogs
- Heavy metal makes them very anxious
- Pop and psycho-acoustic music specifically designed for them results in no significant change in behavior from silence.
Snowdon argues that classical must be defined though because its range includes everything from the soothing “Moonlight Sonata” to the explosive “1812 Overture” with live shooting cannons. “It’s about the features of the music, not the classification,” he says.
Further studies show:
- Longer notes tend to be calming and staccato or short, repeated notes stimulating (think saying “sta-a-a-a-y” versus “Pup-pup-pup” when calling your dog to come)
- A tempo matching an animal’s resting heart rate tends to be calming
- Dogs are not very keen on certain percussion and wind instruments (like saxophones & clarinets) which remind them of gunshot sounds
- They dislike the word “no” added into songs
- Large dogs such as Labradors have vocal ranges similar to adult males. So, it's possible they might be responsive to music in our frequency range unlike a Chihuahua.
In 2012, psychologist Lori Kogan at Colorado State University not only replicated Wells findings in her study of kenneled dogs but discovered that adoptions increased in shelters that played classical music. Quiet dogs made for a more relaxing environment so people stayed longer.
- Hospitals & Veterinarians
In another breakthrough discovery musician Alianna Boone found that hospitalized pups tend to have lower heart rates when harp music is played which makes them more relaxed and speeds up their recovery. And, classical music is being used by some Vets to keep dogs from being anxious during their office visits.
WHO HAS THE BETTER EAR?
Humans hear up to 20,000 Hz while dogs hear up to 45,000 Hz. This doesn’t mean they hear twice as good but they can distinguish sounds at four times the range and hear frequencies twice that of humans.
Louisiana State University Professor George Strain charted hearing ranges for animals based on his own experimental studies.
Turn Down the Volume
Did you know that dogs hear sounds of music much louder than humans? The pain threshold of noise is 125dB and the loudest rock concert is 130db – the same sound level as a jet engine. The fact that there are speakers now that can literally melt the wax in a human ear should make you think twice before cranking up the volume on a Saturday night. You could seriously damage your dog’s hearing.
Are you a pet parent who feels guilty leaving your pup home alone? Do you keep your radio or iTunes streaming all day hoping he will be entertained and not so lonely? It’s all good.
Understanding what your dog needs is important. Knowing that he would rather listen to silence than Metallica or Brittney is a good first step. Now, what about those Mp3 players?
What does your dog hear when listening to digitally compressed music files? Unlike humans who can’t hear the broken sounds, they may process the so-called music as high frequency squeaks or loud mechanical noises from a car or train - both of which could frighten or at the very least irritate them. Knowing your audience is the key to providing good care.
Can Dogs Really Sing?
Howling has a high-pitched piercing quality that can be found in lots of music. So while you think your dog is singing to a song he might be hearing what he thinks is another dog in the distance calling out to him and he’s just trying to answer back.
Howling is how dogs talk to each other which traces back to their wolf ancestry. Recordings of wolves have shown that each will change its tone when others join their group so they won’t sound alike.
That goes the same for dogs howling along with a group of singing humans. They purposely “sing” off key so they stand out. In fact, you can tell one dog from another by the tone of their howl. And, it’s not just high pitched music that can get a dog howling but high pitched sopranos, sirens and ringtones.
So, as much as we want to believe dogs can sing, they are really just howling in reaction to high pitched noises. Sorry Pet Parents! You may want to hold off booking that Hollywood agent.
Check out Knuckles who found internet fame on You Tube with his video, “Knuckles the Dog Singing to Law and Order” which has over 38,000 views.
Veterinary neurologist Susan Wagner believes that it has more to do with higher-register notes in the theme song. “Dogs don’t like hearing high-pitched sounds. The higher pitched, upbeat and complex theme could make them howl. That would be my hypotheses,” she said. He may not really be singing, but he is so darn cute - it’s worth a click.
Or check out Xena ‘The Diva Dog’ who sang to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” on Belgium’s America’s Got Talent show. It’s a perfect example of howling. Oops! I mean singing.
Dogs on Broadway
A singing dog on the internet is one thing but entire musical scores written for dogs are over the top. Two well- known arrangements are: EXPEDITION, written by a Julliard composer and performed by a jazz trio and Siberian Husky & HOWL, a Carnegie Hall musical work performed by twenty voices and three dogs - written by Bette Midler’s arranger.
How Many CD’s Does Your Dog Own?
If you think that's wild then think about an entire music industry catering to just canines. "Through a Dog's Ear" by Lisa Spector is one of the most popular CD's composed for dogs. These streamlined versions of classical pieces by the likes of Bach and Beethoven have minimal instrumentation and are recorded at a slower tempo with the higher frequency notes removed.
Bioacoustic Research Inc. has sold more than 250,000 CD downloads of the album. But as mentioned earlier again there’s no evidence this so-called genetically modified music has any effect on a dog's behavior. In fact, in most cases they ignore it. Dogs seem to respond better to live music with pure tones.
Dogs & Beatles
Want to impress your friends with a little trivia? Paul McCartney added the sound of a high frequency dog whistle to the end of “A Day in the Life” on the original vinyl release of the Sgt. Pepper album.
The sound was never copied accurately onto CD’s because they don’t have the necessary frequencies. So if you want to have some fun, play the song and watch your dog’s reaction. They will be listening to the 15 KHz sound only they can hear.
So how does all this relate to my dream?
I guess it was my subconscious telling me what Maru instinctively already knew. I needed to calm down and quickly because I was ready to crash and burn. She made me realize that old saying “music soothes the savage beast” is true for both of us. While she and I may not be able to enjoy all the same kind of music, we are in complete harmony.
As a thank you treat to Maru I’m going to put on some old school vinyl with calming bass notes. We’re going to go belly up on the sofa and nod off into dreamland. But this time, I will be the one sitting in the corner of the jazz club with my head against my fiancé’s shoulder letting the music sweep me away.
It’s either that, or you’ll find me howling at the moon!