Music to their ears

Animal Chatter

by Iris Winston 

“Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.”

So playwright William Congreve wrote in the 17th century and music continues to have a strong effect on the mood and emotions of many creatures in the 21st century.

For instance, music therapy is regularly used as an anti-anxiety remedy or to treat sleep disorders for human beings. And, just as calming music can have a positive effect on human moods, so it can also improve the experiences of various animals.

Take Frazier, who relaxes to the sounds of country music. Note Daisy’s taste as she hears the soothing sounds of classical music.

Frazier, a black Labrador retriever, may be reminded of his person, also a country-music fan, by hearing the familiar melodies. He certainly seems happily settled when the radio is tuned to the right station, if he is to be left home alone for a while.

Daisy, a Friesian cow, was part of a British study at the University of Leicester on how hearing different types of music affected the mood and milk yield of the cattle involved in the research.

Through the study, 1,000-strong herds of Friesians were exposed to fast, slow and no music, the last as a control, for 12 hours a day over nine weeks. The

researchers found that each cow produced three percent more milk a day when exposed to slow, rather than fast, music. It seems that slow music had the effect of alleviating stress and relaxing the animals, and that the more relaxed they were, the more milk they produced.

The actual milking process appeared to go more smoothly when cows had the right music in their ears. According to the study, the cows found it easier to release oxytocin, a hormone related to the milking process. Calming music distracted and relaxed them and more milk was produced consistently.

There is also some anecdotal evidence to suggest that playing certain music reduces stress for chickens and other poultry. In addition, a recent study at the University of Calgary noted that pigs—extremely intelligent and social animals—reacted emotionally to music, also seeming to prefer calming melodies.

Favourites among the cattle in the British study were the classics, particularly such pieces as Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, but they also appeared to enjoy such soothing melodies as Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters or various renditions of Moon River.

On the other side of the coin, exposure to fast, loud music with more than 100 beats a minute had a correspondingly negative effect on milk production and sometimes even resulted in weight loss.

Possibly, the right type of music helped the cattle relax partly because music blocked less attractive background noises. It was noted to have the greatest effect in reducing stress levels when the herds were in difficult situations, such as being moved to a new pen or experiencing a sudden change in the weather.

Similarly, many dogs are afraid of thunderstorms, but find a little peace when exposed to calming music. Dogs in animal shelters bark less and express fewer stress behaviours, such as constant licking resulting in hot spots, when they hear gentle melodies in the background.

Cats, however, always renowned for marching to their own drummers, do not seem to react to music in the same way, though their interest is aroused by recordings of cat sounds. According to a recent study at the University of Wisconsin, while cats are not moved by human music, they do respond to “cat appropriate” sounds of the right pitch to fit into their method of communication.

In the study, 47 domestic cats were first exposed to cat-targeted songs that were specifically composed to match the frequency range in which cats hear best and in tempos that most often occur naturally with feline communication. The cats were also exposed to a selection of human music. The conclusion was that the cats showed a “significant preference for and interest in” the music that was specifically composed for them.

It might not be possible to oblige cats with their kind of music regularly, but at least the soothing sound of classical music can please farm animals and dogs. And if you meet another canine country music fan like Frazier, you can always switch to a country station.

Almonte, Ontario, writer Iris Winston is a former executive director of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies. She has been an animal lover all her life. Her pets have always been important members of her family.