Perhaps the only thing more popular than Adele’s latest album, 25, is the plethora of YouTube videos of moody mutts howling along with her heartbreaking ballad “Hello.” Based on those clips alone, it’s clear that dogs certainly have a relationship to music, though it’s not quite on the same level as the “this song makes me want to cry alone in a bathtub”-type reaction some (okay, all) of us humans have.
According to Philadelphia-based music teacher Willie Nelson (no, not that one), dogs perceive a far wider range of sound frequencies than people, which might mean that the distinctions between close frequencies may be less important to them. If this is true, he says, dogs may not be able to distinguish between notes on a musical scale as well as people do.
“The distinctions between 440 Hz and 494 Hz (two white keys on the piano near the middle) might not be as obvious to them as they are to us, therefore melody might be less meaningful for dogs,” he says. Though the meaning of music might be different for our canine companions than it is for us, it does indeed have a behavioral effect on dogs. And, much like it is for humans, music is a form of communication for dogs too.
Dr. Stanley Coren, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, writes in Psychology Today that, compared to their wild cousins, domestic dogs bark more and howl only occasionally. In the wild, howling is a form of communication wolves use to assemble their pack or to reinforce the identity of the group, according to Coren. This may explain why a pooch is prone to howl along with some of your favorite songs. Dogs love their humans and by “singing” with you, they might be establishing their bond with you and displaying their place in your “pack.”
What Genre Do Dogs Prefer?
When it comes to the kind of music dogs like, there is a lot of research and anecdotal evidence that suggests your dog’s taste in music is quite highbrow. Dr. Emily Weiss of the ASPCA cites a handful of studies that have found that dogs are most agitated by aggressive and loud music (like heavy metal) but are soothed by the sounds of classical music. In fact, classical music often lulled dogs into sleep. When it comes to pop music, a la Britney Spears as Coren cites, there was no visible change in a dog’s behavior (so much for forming the puppy band Barkstreet Boys).
When you’re having guests over and you want your dog to relax, is there a certain composer you should play? Dogs don’t seem to have much preference between Brahms or Mozart, however, one study published in Animal Welfare did find that the piece of music that resulted in the least amount of barking was Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”
For the most calming effect of music on your dogs, Nelson says that low volumes are probably preferable. In short, you need to fight the urge to blast the Bach.
For a dog to “enjoy” music, there other environmental factors that come into play. According to Weiss, “it is important to note that the impact of music can be affected by the ambient background noise of the [dog’s environment]–and more data is needed to show if music can have the same effect in a very noisy [environment.]” When isolated, music does change a dog’s mood, much like it does in humans, and many of the studies cited were done in kennels where dogs were only interacting with music in a space void of other influences (so if classical music is played while someone in the home is vacuuming or kids are running around, it might not have the same effect).
Often the type of music a human plays will have the same effect on a dog’s mood, too. So, if you’re calm while listening to a certain song, it’s more likely your dog will be calm as well. As Nelson puts it, “If music is making you happy, your dog is probably going to enjoy that experience.” And he should know, he’s got a poodle mix named Strummer and a Staffordshire terrier named James who both sit happily at his feet as he plays the piano or plucks his guitar.
Illustration: Courtesy Nan Lawson