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Do Dogs and Cats Like (Human) Music?

A French woman has apparently taught her two golden retrievers to play the piano. It’s delightful, but is it “real”? Have the dogs really learned to play the piano – meaning they hear a note and know where it is on the keyboard?

Or have they just learned to put their paws in certain places in a certain order.

Coincidentally with the appearance of this video, Life’s Little Mysteries looks at the science of the hearing abilities of dogs and cats.

Animal psychologist Charles Snowdon explains that while nonhumans do experience and enjoy music, it’s of a very different kind, depending on the species.

Humans like music that falls within our acoustic and vocal range, uses tones we understand, and progresses at a tempo similar to that of our heartbeats. A tune pitched too high or low sounds grating or ungraspable, and music too fast or slow is unrecognizable as such.

To animals, human music falls into that grating, unrecognizable category. With vocal ranges and heart rates very different from ours, they simply aren’t wired to enjoy songs that are tailored for our ears. Studies show that animals generally respond to human music with a total lack of interest.

But, taking into account their knowledge of how other animals experience sound, Snowdon and a colleague composed two musical numbers for tamarin monkeys.

The songs sound shrill and unpleasant to us, but they seem to be music to the monkeys’ ears. The song modeled on excited monkey tones and a fast tempo made the tamarins visibly agitated and active. By contrast, they calmed down and became unusually social in response to a “tamarin ballad,” which incorporated happy monkey tones and a slower tempo.

Now they’re composing for cats. This example of what cats seem to like is higher-pitched than most human music and seemingly attuned to one of the sounds that always gets cats to sit up and listen: birds chirping. Another one is much calmer and seems to incorporate sounds of purring. (You can download tunes for $1.99 each.)

Dogs, Snowdon says, are hard to compose music for. They come in all shapes and sizes, with different vocal ranges and heart rates.

Other researchers have found that dogs respond in different ways to human music. Deborah Wells of Queen’s University, Belfast, confirmed what many pet lovers have already observed: that, like us, nonhumans respond differently to various kinds of music. They seem more relaxed in response to classical music and more agitated when heavy metal is playing.

As for the golden retrievers, we don’t know any more about their music skills. And their mom, who taught them to play, is keeping mum.