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Research shows that certain types of classical music can be calming. Check out our playlist.
Music runs pretty strong in my family, and I’ve been a musician nearly as long as I can remember. I started performing classically at a young age; and later, playing in bands, quartets, and other ensembles. In college, I began learning about the ways music can be used therapeutically. Eventually, this led me into doing music-based coordination, calming, memory, and movement activities with Down Syndrome and autistic children — some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever experienced in my life.
Perhaps you rely on music to help get you through stressful or painful situations. Maybe you listen while running or working out, to give yourself an extra motivational push. After seeing firsthand what music can do for kids and adults, I began playing soft, reflective melodies for the frightened, abused rescue pups I’d adopt — and in most cases, the calming results were pretty remarkable.
We humans — being as sight-and-touch-focused as we are — sometimes forget that dogs rely strongly on their acute sense of hearing. It stands to reason that any type of audio could make a potential difference in their environment. So can music really have a sustained, measurable impact on canine well-being? Science seems to offer some intriguing insights that point to very promising answers.
My sophomore-year psychology professor would constantly remind me that merely listening to favorite music actually “lights up” numerous human brain receptors simultaneously. Additionally, neuroscientific research indicates that enjoying music stimulates the release of dopamine to enhance positive emotion. Perhaps this is why researchers have begun exploring human health applications — examining music’s role in dementia care, depression, surgical recuperation, stroke recovery, and more.
In particular, this research suggests that music reduces stress-promoting cortisol levels, while simultaneously decreasing anxiety-induced spikes in heart rate and systolic blood pressure. One study found that the stress-calming impact of music on surgical patients was actually more effective than anxiety medications administered by mouth. A similar study played music for patients who had just undergone hernia repair surgery. These patients demonstrated a decrease in plasma cortisol levels. Interestingly, they also requested much less morphine for pain management.
Animal researchers have taken note of such findings, adapting their methods to account for the fact that dogs hear at different frequencies than people. Interestingly, their studies replicate similar results.
For example, ever heard about those innovative audio sound therapies called Through a Dog’s Ear? These furry friend-focused tunes are the product of psychoacoustic and bioacoustics research that examined how canines process auditory information. Certain key findings were based on the groundbreaking research of Dr. Alfred Tomatis. His studies suggest that sound functions as a sort of balancing “tonic” for the nervous system. However, it needs to be the right kind of sound, appropriate to the subject doing the listening.
So what’s the “right kind” of sound for animals in general … and canines in particular? According to a recent study by Lori Kogan, a licensed psychologist and tenured, associate professor of Clinical Sciences for the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University, classical music comes pretty close. Over a four-month interval, Kogan played 45-minute passages of varying music types for dogs confined to a shelter. Each music selection was followed by a silent intermission.
Canine behavior was recorded every five minutes, resulting in several thousand distinct behavioral recordings over time. Kogan discovered that her shelter dog subjects were less inclined to bark — and more inclined to sleep — while classical music was being played, in contrast to no music at all. Conversely (and perhaps not surprisingly?), heavy metal music tended to induce agitated quaking in the dogs.
As a classically trained musician myself, I continued to wonder about that “classical” designation. After all, it’s a pretty broad, inclusive category. Composers like Handel, Pachelbel, and Bach are known for various calm, sedate compositions; while certain more stirring selections from Rossini and Wagner could practically wake the dead. So I was especially fascinated when I came across research from applied animal behaviorist Patricia B. McConnell, PhD. Her findings — outlined in Perspectives in Ethology, Volume 9, 1991 — further refined these conclusions by illustrating that short, rapidly repeated notes tend to escalate canine motor activity; while long, sustained notes tend to soothe or calm working dogs and even horses.
Then I came across collaborative primate research conducted by Charles Snowdon, PhD and noted composer/cellist David Teie. I’m a classical cellist myself; and personally, I’ve always noticed that long and extended notes tend to conk out my canines — especially at lower frequencies. Snowdon initially found that tiny Cotton-Top Tamarin monkeys were essentially unfazed by any type of “human” music (classical, metal, etc.). However, when Teie created music using pitches and tempos reflecting natural Tamarin vocal patterns, the monkeys displayed a noticeable reaction.
These cumulative findings support and refine the conclusions reached by others, as well as my own personal observations over time. Specifically, slower and longer (“legato”) notes appear to be more universally calming; while shorter, more rapid-fire (“staccato”) notes appear to energize and stimulate. Snowdon and Teie also found that a tempo matching a particular animal’s resting respiratory/heart rate tends to be most calming or soothing for that specific creature.
So when it comes to music and canine wellness, what seems apparent is that long/extended notes, pure simple tones, and unhurried tempos tend to have a measurably calming effect. Based upon Snowdon’s research, it also seems that the vocal pattern and range of a particular species may have strong implications for that animal group’s “preferred” or “optimal” type of music. Finally, music replicating a pup’s natural resting heart rate may prove to have the most soothing benefits.
I’m especially interested to see what future research may hold. For example, could these findings be broadly applied to help calm frightened canines in highly unpredictable or stimulating environments — such as the vet’s office, an unfamiliar boarding kennel, or a brand new foster home?
Based upon my own experience playing (and performing!) calming classical music for canines, here are a few soothing songs you can try if your pup struggles with fear or general nervousness. These pieces are particularly sedate, melodic, and closely aligned with resting heart rate. For separation anxiety, you can try playing the music on continuous loop over a speaker system, or via a CD or iTunes player placed well outside of Rover’s reach.
If you have experiences with pets and music, please share your own insights below.
Marybeth lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, and her rescue dogs Grant and Maizy — all of them Heinz 57 mixed-breed types. A freelance writer and marketing consultant, she’s been rehabilitating severely abused rescues for over two decades. She’s currently working toward specialized certifications in animal nutrition counseling. Connect with her on LinkedIn or check out her family Instagram feed.
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