7 Scientific Studies About How Animals React to Music

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Music is pretty universally enjoyed ... when it comes to people. Animals, on the other hand, have diverse reactions to tunes. For every Ronan the head-bopping sea lion, there are plenty of creatures that can't keep the beat. Here are seven scientific discoveries about how some animals react to music, either created by humans or themselves. 

1. DOGS IN KENNELS MIGHT BE LESS STRESSED WHILE LISTENING TO CLASSICAL MUSIC.

In a 2012 study [PDF] published in The Journal of Veterinary Behavior, researchers from Colorado State University monitored the behavior of 117 kenneled dogs, including their activity levels, vocalization, and body shaking. The researchers played a few different types of music to the dogs, including classical, heavy metal, and an altered type of classical music. They also observed the dogs' behavior when no music was playing at all. They found that the dogs slept the most while listening to all kinds of classical music, indicating that it helped them relax. The dogs had the opposite reaction to the metal music, which provoked increased body shaking—a sign of nervousness.

The researchers noted the similarities between dogs and people when it comes to classical music. “These results are consistent with human studies, which have suggested that music can reduce agitation, promote sleep, improve mood, and lower stress and anxiety,” they wrote. They also point out that heavy metal music has anxiety-inducing effects on some people as well.

2. CATS DON'T CARE ABOUT HUMAN MUSIC, BUT SCIENTISTS ARE ABLE TO CREATE MUSIC THAT THEY DO ENJOY. 

Cats either don't care for, or are pretty indifferent to, human music. Thankfully, Charles Snowdon, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, David Teie, a composer at the University of Maryland, and Megan Savage, formerly of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and now a Ph.D. student at SUNY-Binghamton, have developed music that contains frequencies and tempos similar to the ones cats use to communicate. We tested some of the songs on one of our editor's cats earlier this year; you can listen to samples of the songs here.

Snowdon and Savage went to 47 households with cats and played them music, including two classical songs and two songs developed for felines. When the researchers played the latter, the cat was more likely to move towards the speaker, or even rub up against it, according to their study, which was published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science earlier this year. Interestingly, young and old cats reacted to the cat songs the most positively. Middle-aged cats showed more indifference.

3. IT'S ALSO POSSIBLE TO MAKE MONKEY MUSIC.

Cats weren't the first animals Snowdon, Savage, and Teie made species-specific music for. In 2009, they developed songs that mirrored the pitch of monkey calls. For their study, which was published in the journal Biology Letters, the scientists played the music for tamarin monkeys. Songs that were inspired by the calming calls the animals make caused the monkeys to relax; they even ate more while listening to those songs. But when the researchers played music that contained sounds similar to ones the monkeys make when they’re expressing fear, the monkeys became agitated. (You can listen to the songs here.) The monkeys were mostly indifferent to human music—their behavior didn't noticeably change when they were listening to Nine Inch Nails, Tool, or Samuel Barber. But, interestingly, when they heard “Of Wolf and Man” by Metallica, they grew calmer.

4. COWS PRODUCE MORE MILK WHEN THEY'RE LISTENING TO RELAXING MUSIC. 

In 2001, researchers at the University of Leicester played various songs to 1000-strong herds of Friesian dairy cows. Over a period of nine weeks, the researchers alternated between fast music, slow music, and silence for 12 hours each day. They found that calming music—like R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts," Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water," and Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony"—actually resulted in the cows producing 3 percent more milk—0.73 liters per cow per day. One of the lead researchers, Dr. Adrian North, told the BBC, “Calming music can improve milk yield, probably because it reduces stress.” The cows were not so into “Space Cowboy” by Jamiroquai or “Size of a Cow” by Wonderstuff.

5. ELEPHANTS MIGHT BE BETTER AT PLAYING MUSIC THAN HUMANS ARE.

Elephants are already known for their ability to paint with their trunks, but it turns out that they might be musically inclined as well. (Just check out this viral video of elephants swaying their trunks to violin music!) In northern Thailand, a conservationist named Richard Lair put together the Thai Elephant Orchestra, in which 16 elephants play specially developed instruments like steel drums and even harmonicas. Neuroscientists who have studied the music of the Thai Elephant Orchestra have determined that the animals are able to keep a very stable tempo on a large drum—even more stable than a human can.

6. BIRD BRAINS REACT TO MUSIC IN A MANNER SIMILAR TO HUMAN BRAINS. 

Birds are probably the most well-known singers of the animal kingdom. A few years ago, researchers at Emory University set out to learn whether birds are actually making music, like humans do. To find out, they examined the brains of both male and female white-tailed sparrows as they listened to the sounds of male birds.

When humans listen to music, our amygdalae often light up in response. It turned out that female white-tailed sparrows had similar brain responses to the bird sounds. The part of their brain that’s similar to the amygdala lit up while listening to the male’s song. The male birds, on the other hand, had brain reactions similar to when humans listen to music they don’t like. Sarah Earp, the study's lead researcher, explained, “We found that the same neural reward system is activated in female birds in the breeding state that are listening to male birdsong, and in people listening to music that they like.”

7. FISH KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN COMPOSERS.

In 2013, a study was published in the journal Behavioral Processes that revealed that goldfish could be trained to distinguish between composers. Researchers at Keio University used pieces of music by two composers in the study: Igor Stravinsky and Johann Sebastian Bach. The goal was to train the goldfish to gnaw on a ball filled with food when the correct composer’s music was playing. One group of fish got Stravinsky and a separate group got Bach. When the fish heard music, they went to gnaw on the ball and were rewarded with food. Once the fish were correlating a composer’s music with the reward, the researchers tried playing the other composer’s music. The goldfish didn’t gnaw on the ball at that point, indicating that they knew enough about the pitch and timbre of their composer to not associate the novel music with food.

All images courtesy of iStock

Sorry, Plant Parents: Study Shows Houseplants Don’t Improve Air Quality

sagarmanis/iStock via Getty Images
sagarmanis/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes accepted wisdom needs a more thorough vetting process. Case in point: If you’ve ever heard that owning plants can improve indoor air quality in your home or office and act as a kind of organic air purifier or cleaner, you may be disappointed to learn that there’s not a whole lot of science to back that theory up. In fact, plants will do virtually nothing for you in that respect.

This botanic bummer comes from Drexel University researchers, who just published a study in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology. Examining 30 years of previous findings, Michael Waring, an associate professor of architectural and environmental engineering, found only scant evidence that plants do anything to filter contaminants from indoor air.

Many of these studies were limited, the study says, by unrealistic conditions. Plants would often be placed in a sealed chamber, with a single volatile organic compound (VOC) introduced to contaminate the air inside. While the VOCs decreased over a period of hours or days, Waring found that the studies placed little emphasis on measuring the clean air delivery rate (CADR), or how effectively an air purifier can “clean” the space. When Waring converted the studies' results to CADR, the plants's ability to filter contaminants was much weaker than simply introducing fresh air to disperse VOCs. (Additionally, no one is likely to live in a sealed chamber.)

The notion of plants as natural air filters likely stemmed from a NASA experiment in 1989 which argued that plants could remove certain compounds from the air. As with the other studies, it took place in a sealed environment, which made the results difficult to translate to a real-world environment.

Plants can clean air, but their efficiency is so minimal that Waring believes it would take between 10 and 1000 of them per square meter of floor space to have the same effect as simply opening a window or turning on the HVAC system to create an air exchange. Enjoy all the plants you like for their beauty, but it’s probably unrealistic to expect them to help you breathe any easier.

10 Radiant Facts About Marie Curie

Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Poland in 1867, Marie Curie grew up to become one of the most noteworthy scientists of all time. Her long list of accolades is proof of her far-reaching influence, but not every stride she made in the fields of chemistry, physics, and medicine was recognized with an award. Here are some facts you might not know about the iconic researcher.

1. Marie Curie's parents were teachers.

Maria Skłodowska was the fifth and youngest child of two Polish educators. Her parents placed a high value on learning and insisted that all their children—including their daughters—receive a quality education at home and at school. Maria received extra science training from her father, and when she graduated from high school at age 15, she was first in her class.

2. Marie Curie had to seek out alternative education for women.

After collecting her high school diploma, Maria had hoped to study at the University of Warsaw with her sister, Bronia. Because the school didn't accept women, the siblings instead enrolled at the Flying University, a Polish college that welcomed female students. It was still illegal for women to receive higher education at the time so the institution was constantly changing locations to avoid detection from authorities. In 1891 Maria moved to Paris to live with her sister, where she enrolled at the Sorbonne to continue her education.

3. Marie Curie is the only person to win Nobel Prizes in two separate sciences.

Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Agence France Presse, Getty Images

In 1903, Marie Curie made history when she won the Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre, and with physicist Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity, making her the first woman to receive the honor. The second Nobel Prize she took home in 1911 was even more historic: With that win in the chemistry category, she became the first person to win the award twice. And she remains the only person to ever receive Nobel Prizes for two different sciences.

4. Marie Curie added two elements to the Periodic Table.

The second Nobel Prize Marie Curie received recognized her discovery and research of two elements: radium and polonium. The former element was named for the Latin word for ray and the latter was a nod to her home country, Poland.

5. Nobel Prize-winning ran in Marie Curie's family.

Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Central Press, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

When Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, won their Nobel Prize in 1903, their daughter Irène was only 6 years old. She would grow up to follow in her parents' footsteps by jointly winning the Nobel Prize for chemistry with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, in 1935. They were recognized for their discovery of "artificial" radioactivity, a breakthrough made possible by Irène's parents years earlier. Marie and Pierre's other son-in-law, Henry Labouisse, who married their younger daughter, Ève Curie, accepted a Nobel Prize for Peace on behalf of UNICEF, of which he was the executive director, in 1965. This brought the family's total up to five.

6. Marie Curie did her most important work in a shed.

The research that won Marie Curie her first Nobel Prize required hours of physical labor. In order to prove they had discovered new elements, she and her husband had to produce numerous examples of them by breaking down ore into its chemical components. Their regular labs weren't big enough to accommodate the process, so they moved their work into an old shed behind the school where Pierre worked. According to Curie, the space was a hothouse in the summer and drafty in the winter, with a glass roof that didn't fully protect them from the rain. After the famed German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald visited the Curies' shed to see the place where radium was discovered, he described it as being "a cross between a stable and a potato shed, and if I had not seen the worktable and items of chemical apparatus, I would have thought that I was been played a practical joke."

7. Marie Curie's notebooks are still radioactive.

Marie Curie's journals
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When Marie Curie was performing her most important research on radiation in the early 20th century, she had no idea of the effects it would have on her health. It wasn't unusual for her to walk around her lab with bottles of polonium and radium in her pockets. She even described storing the radioactive material out in the open in her autobiography. "One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles of capsules containing our products […] The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights."

It's no surprise then that Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia, likely caused by prolonged exposure to radiation, in 1934. Even her notebooks are still radioactive a century later. Today they're stored in lead-lined boxes, and will likely remain radioactive for another 1500 years.

8. Marie Curie offered to donate her medals to the war effort.

Marie Curie had only been a double-Nobel Laureate for a few years when she considered parting ways with her medals. At the start of World War I, France put out a call for gold to fund the war effort, so Curie offered to have her two medals melted down. When bank officials refused to accept them, she settled for donating her prize money to purchase war bonds.

9. Marie Curie developed a portable X-ray to treat soldiers.

Marie Curie circa 1930
Marie Curie, circa 1930.
Keystone, Getty Images

Marie's desire to help her adopted country fight the new war didn't end there. After making the donation, she developed an interest in x-rays—not a far jump from her previous work with radium—and it didn't take her long to realize that the emerging technology could be used to aid soldiers on the battlefield. Curie convinced the French government to name her Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and persuaded her wealthy friends to fund her idea for a mobile x-ray machine. She learned to drive and operate the vehicle herself and treated wounded soldiers at the Battle of the Marne, ignoring protests from skeptical military doctors. Her invention was proven effective at saving lives, and ultimately 20 "petite Curies," as the x-ray machines were called, were built for the war.

10. Marie Curie founded centers for medical research.

Following World War I, Marie Curie embarked on a different fundraising mission, this time with the goal of supporting her research centers in Paris and Warsaw. Curie's radium institutes were the site of important work, like the discovery of a new element, francium, by Marguerite Perey, and the development of artificial radioactivity by Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie. The centers, now known as Institut Curie, are still used as spaces for vital cancer treatment research today.

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