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An Unscientific Look at the Science of Music for Dogs

Ben Richmond

Ben Richmond

With help from Spotify's vast catalog of dog-marketed albums.

Image: Vivienstock/Shutterstock

There's a surprising number of albums on Spotify that are marketed to dogs. I don't know how many there are in total, but I can confidently say the number is surprising, since there is more than none. And to be accurate, they aren't marketed to dogs, but to dog owners for consumption by their dogs. It's not totally clear how much dogs like music, or what kind of capacity they have for enjoying music, but that hasn't stopped these albums from racking up tens of thousands of plays. It's the pet-owner equivalent of playing Mozart for a fetus.

My own dog, a six year old border collie-spaniel mix named Lua, hadn't expressed any musical preferences, at least not that I've noticed, until the other night. I couldn't sleep, so I turned on a tape. As Dorothy Ashby, the jazz harpist, began to play, Lua, got up from the bedroom floor, nosed open the door, and headed for the couch.

I'm not going to bat for Dorothy Ashby—I mean, it puts me to sleep—but this was awfully harsh criticism coming from someone who thinks the bathroom garbage is a cornucopia of delights.

Nevertheless, this incident and the discovery of Spotify's weird selection of pet-directed music presented an opportunity for citizen science. In an earlier citizen-science-dog-psychology experiment, I tried throwing two of her toys in opposite directions to see which she liked more (it felt a little sadistic, but she seemed to be having a good time).

Maybe Lua likes some music more than others. I listen to a lot of music around the apartment; maybe I've been living with the furry(ier) Lester Bangs all this time without realizing it. Can dogs like music at all, or are people queuing up Relaxing Music For Dogs: Acoustic Guitar's version "Moon Shadow" for their pets just projecting— the pet-owner equivalent of putting a Ramones t-shirt on a toddler?

Image: Ben Richmond

All of my research was done in an exceedingly sloppy and unprofessional manner—I didn't even have a control—so it's a relief that real science has actually been exploring this question too. In 2012, researchers at Colorado State University published findings suggesting that kenneled dogs slept more and barked less when classical music (Beethoven, Strauss, Bach) was played and shook around more when heavy metal (Mötörhead, Slayer, Judas Priest) was piped in.

The dogs didn't seem to respond to "Through A Dog's Ear" though, which was "created and marketed for the purpose of calming and soothing dogs in shelter and home conditions." According the researchers, "the creators of the modified music explained that the music has been psychoacoustically designed with the specific goal of creating soothing music for dogs," but it didn't make much of a difference.

Researchers at Queens University in Belfast also found that dogs mellowed out to Beethoven and tensed up to Metallica, and didn't seem to notice when Britney Spears or Bob Marley played.

I started off the great dog music experiment with a version of Erik Satie's "Gymnopedie #3," found on the album Relaxing Music for Dogs: Most Popular Songs for Calming Down Your Dog, Puppy or Pet.

I like Satie a lot, and it seems like Lua does too, as she flopped over next to me on the couch. She also just likes attention, though, so who knows if any of this had anything to do with the music. I'm not a scientist enough to not pet my dog while I'm chilling on my couch, so we compromised the research until Satie ran out and the next track started. Science is hard.

There's quite a bit of anecdotal evidence of dogs responding to and even expressing preferences toward music. The composer who wrote "Pomp and Circumstance" was fond of a bulldog that was said to growl at choir members who fell out of tune. Richard Wagner had a special stool in his study for his Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, named "Peps," to sit on.

According to an article Dr. Stanley Coren wrote for Psychology Today, "as Wagner composed he would play the piano, or sing passages that he was working on. The composer kept his eyes on the dog and modified musical phrases based upon how the dog reacted. Wagner noticed that Peps responded differently to melodies depending upon their musical keys. Thus certain passages in one key might cause an occasional calm tail wag, while passages in other keys might arouse an excited response."

Even though she hates cats almost as much as she hates other dogs, Lua seemed indifferent to two opera singers meowing at each other.

I have no idea why, but Rossini wrote a "Duetto buffo di due gatti," the famous "duet for two cats." Even though she hates cats almost as much as she hates other dogs, Lua seemed indifferent to two opera singers meowing at each other.

Judging from just the cover art Love Songs for Dogs, it appears to be an album designed to put dogs in the mood to mate, which was not the vibe I was looking to establish. I instead moved to the acoustic guitar for dogs album. During "Here Comes the Sun" Lua perked up to the sound of people outside. There's nothing conclusive being learned here, but for this dog in this place anyway, the music wasn't really keeping her rapt with attention. Though, to be fair, it's kind of boring music by design.

I'm not sure it would make a difference though. Charles Snowdon, who has studied how animals react to music theorizes that animals have very good absolute pitch, but not very good relative pitch. He told the Discovery Channel, "[humans] understand music in a different way than animals do."

According to Snowdon's work, 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." Snowdon and the cellist composer David Teie wrote music based on the excited sounds of tamarin monkeys and then music based on the vocalizations of calm tamarins, and to the tempo of the tamarin's excited and resting pulse rates. Tamarin vocalizations are three octaves above our own, the music sounded shrill to people, but when the researchers played the "calm tamarin music" for tamarins the monkeys relaxed. When Snowdon and Teie played the "excited music," the tamarins became agitated.

Depending on the species, some dogs vocalize in pitches fairly close to our own, so it seems possible that at least the big dogs could be into our music.

On the first track of Puppy Music: Peaceful Songs for Dogs a weird, sharp synthesizer part cuts through out of key for seemingly no reason. The music otherwise seems like it was made for people who think of their dog as their child.

Image: Ben Richmond

Lua, for her part, did kind of mellow out as the track played, sighing and laying flat. Even though I disliked it, I vowed to let the music play out, for science. A pan flute came in much to my dismay, and I noticed the song is eight minutes long. I dreaded what Spotify is going to recommend based on listening to Relax My Dog Music.

Deviating slightly, I found Neely Reynolds's 2002 album called Songs for the Dogs. It seems more like it's dedicated to Neely's dogs than made for their enjoyment. He had less than 1,000 plays, so I let a bluegrass country song, "Bells (Joe & Ruby's Hotel)" play for a while until I felt confident that I'd done my part to give Neely a fraction of a penny. Then I also listened to "More Sad than Sad and Blue." Neely can really sing.

I switched tacks entirely and put on a Ravi Shankar record that I'd foud on the street that afternoon. There was a plastic tub of records next to the garbage cans, evidence of a love—either of vinyl or companion—that had gone sour and sent a really kickass record collection to the curb. I was just doing my part not to let them go to waste—there was a Fela Kuti album in there!—and I may have remarked that it was the best day of my life.

Anyway, "Live at the International Monterey Pop Festival" is as good means as any to also test records vs. streaming music. Maybe Lua picks up on those lost nuances that I can't hear but that people tell me is there. The record is in really good shape, and I wonder how they all ended up in the trash anyway.

This raga is 26 minutes long, so like three Relax My Dog tracks. I don't really know anything about Ravi Shankar except that he inspired George Harrison to make "Within Without You," which I think is terrible and that Shankar was popular enough in America to play Monterey. Was he really popular in India? Lua seemed to perk up and may even have been sort of agitated by Ravi Shankar, although it could've been that it was just getting time for her nightly walk.

Image: Relax My Dog

There's some speculation that dogs can't pick up on subtle shifts in pitch as well as people can, thanks to the super-sensitive human auditory cortex. Dogs may only be able to pick up shifts of about a third of an octave, so sitars, which are capable of quarter tones—half of a half-note interval—are going to be under-appreciated anyway. It's also possible that Lua is some sort of Western-music chauvinist, I suppose.

I put on one last garbage record before we went outside. Bob Dylan's New Morning is an early '70s Dylan album that is dragged down from "sort of underwhelming but pleasant enough" to "pretty bad," by a single song called, appropriately enough, "If Dogs Run Free."

It's a true testament to the strength of Dylan's '60s output that he was ever allowed to record again after putting "If Dogs Run Free" into the world. It's like a parody of the lamest jazz music imaginable, complete with a scat singer who riffs until she sounds like she's just clearing her throat. All the while Bob Dylan speak-sings the world's most insipid couplets including (but not limited to) "Just do your thing, and you'll be king," ending each verse with "if dogs run free." It's the musical equivalent to crashing your motorcycle, and if he insisted on wearing a beret and sunglasses when recording it, it wouldn't surprise me in the least.

Snowdon would say any musical taste I attribute to my dog is probably just projection.

Whatever the music was doing, it wasn't making much of a difference for Lua, who, by then, had picked up on the fact that we were heading outside and was happily tapping around the apartment.

No matter what music I put on, she remained closely attuned to me, apparently able to ascertain my intentions. Snowdon would say any musical taste I attribute to my dog is probably just projection.

Most of the Spotify albums for dogs sound relaxing enough for people—or for babies—which might be enough to relax a dog by proxy anyway. They've spent so much time evolving to be attuned to people, not to music. The difference between plaintive piano music like Satie and "The Ace of Spades" could be clear enough without having to discern pitch—in terms of tempo and register—although when you get right down to it, even human music preferences seem more obviously tied to the culture that surrounds the music than music theory.

Still, given that she apparently hates Dorothy Ashby, I imagine—or project—that Lua hates "If Dogs Run Free," even though she can't appreciate just how stupid the words are. She could feel me tensing up with rage, until the needle mercifully lifted and we went out into the cold night air.