Studies have shown playing the right music can have a powerful and calming influence on dogs and cats.
Sound is a major factor of our surroundings, especially in today’s loud, fast-paced world. Noise pollution can be a significant stressor for both animals and humans, while healing music can calm us and improve our lives.
Sound consists of waves of energy. How fast a wave is traveling, or its frequency, is measured in hertz (Hz). One Hz is defined as one wave cycle per second. Humans hear frequencies of 20 to 20, 000 Hz, while dogs hear a much wider range of 40 to 65,000 Hz.
Loudness is measured in decibels (dB). Hearing damage occurs at 100dB, but can also be caused by prolonged exposure to noise levels above 85dB – a level frequently reached in animal shelter environments.
As you can see from the below, many of us are at risk for hearing loss:
Whisper 30dB Traffic 70dB
Conversation 50dB Lawnmower 90dB
Alarm clock 70dB Rock concert 130dB
Resonance and entrainment
Psychoacoustics is a discipline that studies how humans perceive sound – how we listen, our psychological responses, and the physiological impact of music and sound on the nervous system. Bioacoustics, meanwhile, is the study of sound perception in animals. It looks at how animals communicate, as well as the positive and negative effects of sound in their environments.
Two of the most important principles of psychoacoustics and bioacoustics are resonance and entrainment.
- Resonance describes the effect of one vibration (or frequency) on another. For example, placing a tuning fork on the spine allows the sound vibration to resonate through the entire nervous system.
- Entrainment is the process by which sound rhythms cause major body systems (heart rate, brain waves and breath) to naturally speed up or slow down. For example, if we listen to slow music, our pulse and breathing will decrease.
The orienting response
Pattern identification is another component of bioacoustics and psychoacoustics, and is related to the complexity of sound. When a new pattern is introduced, the focus of the brain turns to this sensory input. This is termed active listening. Once the pattern has been processed, the brain returns to a passive hearing state.
This is an instinctive process that also occurs in animals. This orienting response is a survival mechanism, and is especially important in prey animals. The ear pinna of dogs and cats allow the reception of sound to occur on a much more sensitive level than in humans. We have all witnessed the sudden arousal of an animal when an unusual or loud sound is heard. While the orienting response is important for the animal’s survival, it also has some negative consequences in domestic environments, where he is exposed to sounds that may continually activate his orienting response. Even though these environmental sounds may not elicit overt fear, the ongoing instinctive reaction to sudden noise can interrupt the animal’s relaxed state.
The effects of music have been well documented in humans, and studies with domestic and other animals have revealed that music also has a powerful effect on them. For example, studies showed that country music can calm ponies while classical music helped cows produce more milk and improved the growth rate of chickens. A recent study in cats demonstrated that calming music increased the depth of anesthesia during surgery. Dolphins, meanwhile, have been known to swim in synchrony to Bach.
A study done in Ireland found that classical music is the preferred calming sound source in dog shelters. Research done by Through a Dog’s Ear took this a step further and applied the principles of resonance, entrainment, and the orienting response to classical music selections. It discovered that slow, psychoacoustically-arranged single instrument (piano) music had the most calming effects. Upwards of 70% of dogs in shelters and veterinary offices, and 85% of dogs in home environments, became noticeably calmer with this music. It was also found to reduce twice as many anxiety behaviors in fearful dogs as standard classical selections did. Many animal shelters are now benefitting from programs that provide calming music for their residents.
Music is a wonderful tool for relaxation and healing. I hope you and your animal companion can discover its potential together.
Do a sonic evaluation
You may want to do a sonic evaluation of your home, especially if you have an anxious or reactive dog or cat. Take a few minutes to listen to and note down all the sounds you (and your animal) hear — the results may surprise you. We humans are masters at tuning out what’s happening around us, so your environment may be noisier than you realize.
Remember that our nervous systems also have an orienting response, so creating a healthy sound environment with appropriate music may improve your well-being as well as that of your four-legged family member.