Not too long ago, I was turned onto a book called Through a Dog’s Ear: Using Sound to Improve the Health and Behavior of your Canine Companion. It came with a CD. As a dog owner, I wasn’t interested because Amos seems like he’s fine with the sound diet he’s been fed all these years. He’s not particularly anxious or yappy. As a writer, I was uninterested because I don’t want to convey the idea that you need to buy this or that special thing in order to have a better life with your pet. Dog ownership should be as simple as possible and should not require something like going to a music store. Dogs have been around some 12,000 years and have evolved ways to do amazing things. Like getting us to pick up their poop, and feed them organic beef. We are whipped. Do I also need to be my dog’s DJ?
I’d already gotten the general idea from looking at the CD tracks (Brahams, Schubert, Bach, etc.) and from flipping through the pages: Classical music is good for dogs, and maybe for people. But so is cod liver oil. I decided that it wasn’t really my thing, but I’d try it just for blog’s sake.
It is all slow piano music, recorded by Julliard-trained musician Lisa Spector. The songs are “psychoacoustically designed” simplified classical pieces, performed solo. According to the book, “The more complexity in the music, the more energy required to decipher it. Likewise, the simpler the sound, the greater the relaxation response.”
I don’t remember what that first track was. Or the second. I can’t tell you because I can’t find the CD at the moment, but also because they weren’t the kinds of melodies that tend to stick in one’s brain. But I really wish I knew where that CD was: When I started to listen to those banal tracks, it was like the sandstorm in my head started to settle. There was music playing, but the effect was a lull in my mind. I swear I could feel my blood pressure drop. It made me want to get off the web and write for a while—suddenly, I looked at all the tabs I had open and it was just too much sensory information. It didn’t jibe with the calmness of the music. I had to choose between the business of the computer screen and the CD. I chose the boring music.
What was happening to me? The book discusses Ivan Pavlov’s 1927 discovery of the orienting responses, our “instinctive visual or auditory reaction to any sudden or novel stimulus…a built in sensitivity to movement and potential predatory threats.” Apparently, Pavlov determined that this response causes our brains to become alert and hyper and attuned to exciting stimulus even when the body is still. What is the Internet, which I use constantly, but a constant source of exciting stimulus? Book authors Joshua Leeds (a sound researcher) and Susan Wagner (a veterinary neurologist) also discuss Dr. Robert Kubey’s studies on television addiction, and his findings that “long sessions of overstimulation create fatigue, dizziness, and nausea.” We are nevertheless drawn to that stimulation, with “even babies [doing] everything they can to watch a TV and follow all the fast movement on the screen.” They also touch on Temple Grandin’s work, looking at how intermittent sound is upsetting because you are waiting for the next sound. Write Wagner and Leeds:
“Intermittent sounds are a perfect example of pattern identification—or, more precisely, the lack of it. The brain is always looking for a pattern. Auditorily, this is called active listening—we are finely tuned, alert, and actively focused. But this is designed to be a temporary state, lasting only until we find the pattern in what we are hearing…When we can’t find a pattern, our minds are not free to move on to other things and the whole perceptual system essentially starts to back up. If we add the effects of intermittent sounds together with sensory confusion, over-stimulation, and an overwhelmed orienting response, a not too pretty picture begins to emerge. “
The fact that we internalize music is seen through the way we tap our feet, or how Black Sabbath makes us feel one way and LCD Soundsystem another. According to the book, this is a visual indication of entrainment aka “the process whereby our internal pulses will match a periodic rhythm…even without physical demonstration of rhythmic entrainment, the internal organs are still speeding up or slowing down to match external rhythmic stimuli.”
Is pretty-but-boring classical music better for you, than, say, Sonic Youth? Or talk radio? This short personal test I’ve undergone would suggest it is. I’ve been calmer and more productive than I am listening to my normal, more pop-influenced iTunes playlist. Studies hold that the same thing is true for dogs. In 2002, Belfast-based psychologist and animal behaviorist Deborah Wells researched various kinds of auditory stimuli to see their effects on dogs: human conversation, classical music, heavy metal music, pop music, and silence. She found that “classical music resulted in dogs spending more of their time resting than any of the other experimental conditions of auditory stimulation.” They also barked less. In a subsequent study, she used Spector’s music—both solo piano music and piano trios at different tempos. The results were in favor of the solo piano at 50 to 60 beats per minutes. It put more than half the test dogs to sleep.
I wonder if this is why classical music has endured over so many generations: It has the power to give us a general feeling of sedation and well-being. Maybe that is something that is painfully obvious. But no one told me!
And so I never told Amos that he might like classical music. In fact, I’m not totally sure that he does. He certainly doesn’t seem to dislike it. The fact that these Through A Dog’s Ear CDs are being touted as essential kennel management tools at dog shelters around the country make me think that they must be doing something good to him. But it’s not like he does his excited dance when he sees me slipping it into my laptop.
After I wrote all of the above, I called my mom to ask if I’d left the dog music CD at her house. “Yes,” she said. “It sounds like something they’d play at a mortuary. And yet, I love it.” Indeed, I could hear it playing. Her dogs, normally barking in the background, were totally quiet.