Animals & Musicality

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

Musicality is a form of intelligence that was once thought to be a uniquely human attribute. But some scientists are beginning to reconsider this idea that only humans have a sense of rhythm, or have strong musical preferences, and can enjoy the pleasure of musical experiences. One ambassador of musicality in animals is Snowball.

Snowball, a cockatoo, has invented fourteen unique dance moves that are not typical cockatoo moves, but rather are inspired by particular musical songs. This has scientists' attention because these moves were not taught by the owner. Snowball is not being coached to keep time to the music. Thus Snowball, as well as many other birds, have shown an innate musicality which is an impressive form of intelligence that was once thought to be a dividing line between humans and non-human animals. Many species, as well as plants, have been shown to be calmed by, enjoy and respond to soothing music.

Anyone who loves a dog has numerous examples of their innate intelligence. Stanley Coren is the author of the book The Intelligence of Dogs, Canine Consciousness and Capabilities. In a New York Times book review in June 1994, Sarah Boxer summarizes Coren’s views of canine intelligence:

(Coren) even considers the " 'dog-possible' dimensions" of Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, deciding that dogs possess six out of the seven kinds:

1) Spatial intelligence when they remember where their toys are;

2) Body-kinesthetic intelligence when they balance on a precipice;

3) Intrapersonal intelligence when knowing their own limits, they refuse to jump over a large chasm;

4) Interpersonal intelligence when they play with other dogs;

5) Logical-mathematical intelligence when they figure out whether to eat the bigger piece of meat or the closer piece first;

6) Linguistic intelligence when they bark or respond to human commands.

Musical Intelligence in Animals

But Coren didn’t think that dogs had the seventh intelligence -- musical intelligence, but it turns out they have strong preferences for music. Most prefer Bach over Stravinsky, for example. Soothing music is used in many shelters and appears to calm dogs. Soothing, slower tempo music caused dogs to bark less and sleep more deeply. Although cats have been shown to be less interested in human music, they do respond positively to music scientists have created for cats specifically.

Cows will produce more milk when listening to slow, classical music under 100 beats per minute) and less milk when listening to fast music (music over 120 beats per minute). Here is a man serenading his cattle with his trombone.

Although this Chihuahua is on a short leash, which is perhaps not the kindest thing, it does appear that this dog is dancing for her own joy. The musicality is obvious.

French Bulldog's amazing ability to copy rhythm. Watch this scratch duet.

Here is the case of Ronan, a Sea Lion, who was trained to keep the beat by researchers. This opened up our understanding of the potential for many animals to keep a beat.

Goldfish can be trained to distinguish between Bach and Stravinsky

Meredith Danko reports in "Seven Scientific Studies About How Animals React to Music":

"In 2013, a study was published in the journal Behavioral Processes that revealed that goldfish could be trained to distinguish between composers. Researchers at Keio University used pieces of music by two composers in the study: Igor Stravinsky and Johann Sebastian Bach. The goal was to train the goldfish to gnaw on a ball filled with food when the correct composer’s music was playing. One group of fish got Stravinsky, and a separate group got Bach. When the fish heard music, they went to gnaw on the ball and were rewarded with food. Once the fish were correlating a composer’s music with the reward, the researchers tried playing the other composer’s music. The goldfish didn’t gnaw on the ball at that point, indicating that they knew enough about the pitch and timbre of their composer to not associate the novel music with food.


Dancing with Dogs is a competitive sport. Any trainer will tell you that dogs have strong preferences for musical styles, beats, orchestrations. Those who teach dogs to dance for owner/dog dance duo competitions will tell you that each dog has specific likes and dislikes for rhythms and styles of dance songs and will respond enthusiastically to some and show no interest in others. Good trainers will let the dogs choose the music that they wish to dance to.

Playing Classical Music to a Blind Elephant

Paul Barton plays classical music for a blind elephant, and she chooses to stay right by him and is reduced to tears, listening. Watch her sway to the particular melody.

Mariachi Band Serenades a Beluga Whale

How Chimps in South Africa react to some soothing and rhythmic music

And let's finish this blog with a lullaby that puts an elephant to sleep. She uses the red cloth to keep the flies away.

Remember that animals have preferences and tastes in what they like as music, so experiment with the animals in your world. And remember to keep the volume at a reasonable level as their ears may be more sensitive than yours.

Enjoy music with your animals!

Genie Joseph, PhD

Director: The Human-Animal Connection


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