We’ve been watching homemade dog videos for as long as the Internet has been around. In some of these videos, dogs appear to have human-like reactions to music. They seem to wag their tails at the sound of a singer’s voice, fall asleep to a lullaby, or become excited at hearing the booming bass in dance music.
Or is it just a training trick? Do dogs truly understand what they’re hearing? Can dogs hear music?
- 1 How humans understand music
- 2 What music sounds like to dogs
- 3 Enjoying music with your dog
How humans understand music
That depends on what we mean here by understanding music.
Our human brains are hard-wired to recognize patterns. We do this to everything we see or hear. We can’t help it; it’s part of who we are. It’s this innate ability for pattern recognition that enables us to figure out how things in the universe work — and ultimately inspires us to make and understand different forms of art, like music.
When we hear music, we recognize the layered patterns of sound built into it. We instinctively assign meaning to the patterns we’re hearing. We have a deep mental and emotional response to those patterns. That’s what we mean by understanding music.
So when we ask if dogs can hear music, we’re asking if they understand it in the same way we do.
But they don’t.
What music sounds like to dogs
Dogs have a different brain from ours. They also have a superior sense of hearing. Therefore, how they perceive music will be different from how we understand it.
And so far, here’s what current science has to say about how your pet dog hears music.
1. Better hearing doesn’t necessarily mean better-sounding music.
Dogs can hear sounds on frequencies ranging from 67,000 to 45,000 Hertz — a much wider range than the average human’s 64,000 to 23,000 Hertz. This means your dog is capable of hearing more details in the audio “soundscape” that make up a musical performance or music recording. He can pick up the extra sounds or aspects that accompany the instrumentation or voices, which you can’t hear.
Because of that, there may be times when the music you listen to will not even be a comfortable or tolerable experience for your dog to hear. For instance, what might sound like harmonious carnival dance music to you (with huge drums) might be as upsetting as New Year’s Eve fireworks to his ears.
2. Human music is a generally meaningless soundscape.
Unfortunately, there are no studies that prove dogs recognize patterns of sound in the music we humans make (much less assign emotional meaning to those patterns!). Dogs don’t have the same “musical sense.”
So to the canine mind, music will simply be a cacophony or a meaningless jumble of sounds. Your dog won’t have the same emotional reaction we have to a particular progression of notes or chords. And he will certainly not feel the urge to move or dance in time to a certain rhythm — because that requires the mental ability to recognize and anticipate the pattern of beats.
Yet dogs can still “appreciate” music and benefit from hearing music. It can still be a physically comforting jumble of sounds for a dog to hear — much like how the sound of trickling water in a peaceful woodland can be comforting to any animal or human.
3. Pitches are still important.
However, despite not being able to understand patterns in music, dogs can at least recognize differences in pitch. You may see this ability displayed whenever your dog chooses to react to certain bits in music.
For instance, if a group of singing human voices sound like howling to him and he starts howling with them as well, he’ll howl at a different pitch or “key” from what he hears. Or if a singer or instrument in a group is the only one singing a different note, the dog will notice that one performer straightaway.
4. If it sounds similar to what the dog already knows, he’ll react.
Both wolves and dogs tend to start howling whenever they hear other dogs, wolves, or people howling. If they hear a musical instrument or a group of singing humans that sounds like howling, they’ll howl as well.
Dogs also start barking, growling, or howling if they hear anything within a piece of music that, to their ears, sounds like another animal or person that’s calling or threatening them. If the music features a sound that’s pleasant and familiar to the dog (e.g., his pet parent’s singing voice) or something he associates with play, he may start wagging his tail or getting excited.
5. Dogs can have “musical preferences.”
While dogs can’t understand music the way we do, they can still form preferences for particular music genres or songs. Of course, these preferences won’t be based on any recognition of patterns in music — instead, it’ll be based on how pleasant or exciting that jumble of sound feels to their ears.
So what do dogs like or don’t like? Studies have shown that dogs become more stressed or agitated if they are subjected to loud music genres like heavy metal. On the other hand, they become calmer or more relaxed when classical music is played. (Pop music elicited no noticeable response from dogs.)
Enjoying music with your dog
This does not mean you and your fur baby can’t enjoy music together. There’s still music out there that both you and your dog can appreciate, each in your own way. Here’s how:
- When your dog is around, avoid playing loud, discordant music. Play quieter or harmonious music instead. It can be pop music, classical music, jazz, blues, ethnic, or even meditation music. It doesn’t matter what genre it is, as long as the music isn’t as loud as firing artillery and isn’t heavy on dissonance.
- Give your dog some moments of “silence,” too — don’t try to fill your home with constant noise or music, 24/7, just because you find the silence boring. Remember, your dog has better hearing than yours. What sounds like unbearable emptiness to you could actually be a sweet and subtle soundscape to your dog’s ears.