Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

Do Dogs Have a Musical Sense?

Dogs have definite musical preferences and a sense of pitch.

In 1980 Carnegie Hall hosted the debut performance of Howl, a musical work for twenty voices and three canines. The piece was composed and conducted by Kirk Nurock, who is also a pianist and arranger that has worked with the likes of  Dizzy Gillespie, Judy Collins, Bette Midler, and Leonard Bernstein. Trained at Julliard School of Music, Nurock would go on to compose and perform the Sonata for Piano and Dog (1983) and Expedition (1984), an arrangement for Jazz Trio and Siberian Husky. In each of these dogs howled to accompany music, with occasional barks and yips as punctuation.

dog canine pet music opera sing
Many people think of a dog’s howl as a canine attempt to make music because dogs sometimes howl when music is played or sung. Compared to wild canines, domestic dogs bark a lot more and howl only occasionally. Howling is actually a form of communication, which can indicate loneliness in an isolated dog, but often serves other social functions. Wolves howl to assemble the pack and also to reinforce the identity of the group. Upon hearing one animal howling other group members gather together and join in a song with their pack. The most familiar howl starts without any fanfare and produces a continuous prolonged sound. It may begin with a slightly higher pitch before moving to the main tone, and sometimes the pitch may lower toward the end of the howl. It has a sonorous, mournful sound to the human ear. However the canines participating in group howling seem to like it, which is probably why humans imagine that a group of howling dogs or wolves feel that they are engaging in the canine equivalent of a spontaneous canine jam session. 

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 Scientific analyses suggest that canines have a sense of pitch. Recordings of wolves have shown that each will change its tone when others join the chorus. No wolf seems to want to end up on the same note as any other in the choir. This is why a dog howling along with a group of singing humans is instantaneously noticeable. He is deliberately not in the same register as the other voices, and seems to revel in the discordant sound he is making.

 The kind of human music that most often induces a dog to howl is produced on wind instruments, particularly reed instruments, such as clarinets or saxophones. Sometimes dogs can be induced to howl by a long note on the violin or even by a human holding a long note while singing. Perhaps these sound like proper howls to the listening dog and he feels the need to answer and join the chorus.

 Many experts think that dog’s don’t actually engage in their vocalizations to produce music, in the same way that we might sing or play a piano as part of an aesthetic experience. However, there are reports of dogs that had definite tastes in music and some sense of what constitutes good music. A Bulldog named Dan, was owned by Dr. George Robinson Sinclair, the organist at Hereford Cathedral in London. He was a friend of Sir Edward William Elgar, best known for writing Pomp and Circumstance and Land of Hope and Glory. Elgar developed a fondness for Dan because he felt that the dog had a good sense of musical quality. Dan would frequently attend choir practices with his master, and would growl at choristers who sang out of tune, which greatly endeared him to the composer.

 Richard Wilhelm Wagner, best known as the composer of the series of four operas that make up The Ring Cycle, had a strong appreciation of the musical taste of dogs. He provided a special stool in his study for Peps, his Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. 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. This put the germ of an idea in Wagner’s mind that ultimately led him to a device called the “musical motif.” The motif involves the association of specific musical keys with particular moods or emotions in the operatic drama. Thus in the opera Tannhauser the key of E-flat major was linked with the concept of holy love and salvation, while E major is tied to the notion of sensual love and debauchery. In all of his subsequent operas Wagner came to use musical motifs to identify important characters and other aspects of the drama

 Research confirms that dogs have musical preferences and react differently to particular types of music. Psychologist Deborah Wells at Queens University in Belfast, exposed dogs in an animal shelter to different types of music. The dogs’ behaviors were observed when they listened to either a compilation of popular music (including Britney Spears, Robbie Williams and Bob Marley), classical music (including Grieg's Morning, Vivaldi's Four Seasons, and Beethoven's Ode to Joy),  or recordings by heavy metal rock bands such as Metallica. In order to see if it were really the musical aspects of the sounds that the dogs were responding to, they were also exposed to recordings of human conversation and a period of quiet.

The kind of music that the dogs listened to made a difference. When the researchers played heavy metal music the dogs became quite agitated and began barking. Listening to popular music, or human conversation, did not produce behaviors that were noticeably different from having no sound at all. Classical music, on the other hand, seemed to have a calming effect on the dogs. While listening to it, their level of barking was significantly reduced and the dogs often lay down and settled in place. Wells summarized her findings saying, "It is well established that music can influence our moods. Classical music, for example, can help to reduce levels of stress, whilst grunge music can promote hostility, sadness, tension and fatigue. It is now believed that dogs may be as discerning as humans when it comes to musical preference."

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark, The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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