Scientific Studies on Animals Reveal Just How Much Music Shapes the Natural World

Chimp parent and child swinging in the forest

Music seems a more fundamentally human art form than most. It's home to our most intimate emotions and has such a strong effect on our brain chemistry that it's addictive. But it isn't just humans that love music. The science of music's effect on animals and even plants reveals something startling: It's not just an art form — it's essentially a force of nature.

Due in no small part to the frustration of being woken up by an early-rising bird, most of us write off all animal noise as merely irritating. Animals, on the other hand, are empathetic when they listen to cross-species music, and react with emotions and behavior eerily similar to our own. At dog kennels, researchers found that classical music reduced anxiety in the dogs, helping them sleep more and bark less. Heavy metal, on the other hand, made the dogs bark more, sleep less and shake violently, all symptoms of a true metalhead.

Like dogs, cows also prefer classical music, and will shockingly produce more milk when they are listening to slow jams (music under 100 beats per minute) and less milk when listening to fast music (music over 120 beats per minute). But regardless of an increase in milk production, cows are downright curious about human music, no matter if it's good or bad.

Beyond merely appreciating "human music," animals can actually identify rhythms and even similarities between songs, letting different kinds of music affect their behavior. One study found that horses can synchronize their pace to the rhythm of music playing in the background, as can sea lions and bonobos. That means that the effect of music runs deeper than just being a pleasant sound

Tamarins, a small monkey in Central and South American rain forests, were actually the first animal studied by researchers to exhibit behavior directly linked to types of music. A cellist teamed up with a psychologist to create four songs modeled off tamarin vocalizations, two mimicking a tamarin's distress call and two mimicking the safe and calming call. When the team played the distress call compositions, the monkeys displayed signs of distress, such as shaking their heads, sticking out their tongues and looking around. But when the calming numbers were played, they showed clear signs of calming down, even enjoying the music.

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Of course, arguably animals exhibit some other human qualities too. Their taste for music could stem from whatever genetic overlap we find. But the really striking proof that music is something more than a mere human phenomenon comes from the plant world.

Researchers have found that plants grow away from the sound of a chomping caterpillar, and will also grow toward the sound of rushing water. But besides caterpillars and water, music can affect growth in young plants just as it can aid development in human children — and can help farmers and urban gardeners grow bigger crops. Researchers in South Korea found that playing classical music directly triggered growth genes in rice crops. They played Beethoven songs through loudspeakers at rice fields and tracked the results, ruling out light and wind factors and seriously proving that the music was spurring flowering in the rice plants.

It seems clear, then, that music is more of a universal force of expression and care than it is human artifice. That's the sort of thing that's intuitive, though, if you take one step beyond Iggy Azalea and look out towards the world. Music is just a relationship between sounds, one that can just as reasonably shape the emotions of humans and animals as it can spur plant growth. We don't write songs, then; we only ever find them, out and about in the world: