On the surface, the way we create and respond to music seems like a fundamentally human trait. Music triggers all sorts of emotions; it makes us smile, laugh, cry, workout harder, reevaluate our lives.
But, as it turns out, it isn’t just us humans that enjoy music. Scientific studies have uncovered weird and wonderful ways in which music has an effect on species of all sizes.
Cheesy breaks and beats
In March this year, Swiss cheese scientists reported an important discovery – play hip hop to maturing cheese and it develops a much funkier flavour. Beat Wampfler and a team from the Bern University of Arts played various music to giant wheels of Emmenthal stored in Wampfler’s cellar to see how sound waves might affect bacteria in cheese. Each cheese was played a particular song in a 24-hour loop through a mini-transducer inside the cheese.
Six months later, the cheese that was played hip hop – A Tribe Called Quest’s Jazz (We Got), since you’re asking – was found to have a much stronger aroma and flavour than the other cheeses, which had been exposed to rock, techno, classical, or plain, good old silence.
Sharks love jazz
In 2018, Australian scientists tested juvenile Port Jackson sharks to see if they could recognise music. The pint-sized bottom-feeders were encouraged to swim over to receive food when jazz was played by researchers from Sydney’s Macquarie University. Pointless? Not so – it’s long been thought that sharks learn to associate the sound of boat engines with food, because food is often used to lure them closer for cage-diving expeditions.
The sharks learned to associate the sound of jazz with food, but became confused when classical music was played instead. “It was obvious that the sharks knew that they had to do something when the classical music was played, but they couldn’t figure out that they had to go to a different location,” said researcher Cullum Brown. While the sharks couldn’t quite work that out in the time researchers had with them, a little more study time might have resulted in them spotting the difference between Brahms and Brubeck.
Easy listening, more milk
Savvy farmers have long touted the benefit of music in milking sheds, though many thought that may have been more about breaking the monotony of milking than for any perceived bovine-related attributes.
In 2001, however, research suggested cows may respond to certain types of music. A study at the University of Leicester found cows played a selection of easy-listening tracks – the likes of REM’s Everybody Hurts and Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water – had an increase in milk yield of some 3%. The benefits disappeared once the music got faster however – even if it was Pumping on Your Stereo by Supergrass.
Have you heard about the bird?
Few species in the animal kingdom have been observed to move in rhythmic fashion to music. Is dancing a human impulse? Not necessarily. A now famous viral video shows a cockatoo called Snowball busting a collection of classic shapes along to the Backstreet Boys’ Everybody (Backstreet’s Back). Merely a training trick, with a bowl of bird treats just out of shot? Watch the video and you’ll see Snowball isn’t just swaying – he’s perfectly in time.
As the website Phys.org notes, the video found its way to the desk of psychology professor Aniruddh Patel, who contacted Snowball’s owner, herself a scientist. The pair of them then played Snowball a variety of songs, some of them sped up or slowed down, and found that nine times out of 11 he was able to keep in time. "It turned out to be the first demonstration that another animal could feel the beat of music and move its body to it," says Patel.
It gets even more interesting. The same mental processes that make birds like the cockatoo – and the African grey parrot – so good at mimicking speech are also thought to be crucial to the ability to react to music. Adena Schachner, a psychology doctoral candidate at Harvard, studied footage of animals reacting to music, both vocal mimickers like parrots as well as cats and dogs.
"The really important point is that many animals showed really strong evidence of synchronizing with the music, but they were all vocal mimics," says Schachner. "Most of them were parrots – we found 14 different species of parrot on YouTube that showed convincing evidence that they could keep a beat."
So, it’s possible that the ability to mimic speech and keep time to a beat may be part of the same evolutionary process – just as it may have been with humans, though the idea obviously needs more study.
If music be the food of love…
Music has long been regarded as a mood enhancer. Some might find their heart skipping a beat faster for Barry White, and others might plump for Metallica. In the case of mosquitoes, the mood is definitely not improved by electronic producer Skrillex, at least according to an experiment whose findings were recently published in the medical journal Acta Tropica.
In the experiment, Aedes aegypti (also known as the yellow fever mosquito) were subjected to electronic music by a team of experts trying to see if it could be used as a repellent. Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites, a 2010 track, was used because it included both very high and very low frequencies. "In insects, low-frequency vibrations facilitate sexual interactions, whereas noise disrupts the perception of signals from conspecifics [members of the same species] and hosts," the scientists said in their findings. Basically, mosquitoes had less sex if the track was played.
And the study also found that the high-frequency vibrations also distracted the female mosquitoes from feeding; further proof, perhaps, of the effectiveness of Skrillex’s repellent. Just don’t expect to be able to buy it in pharmacies any time soon.
It’s great when you’re ape, yeah
Given that we share so much of our DNA with monkeys, you would think that our simian cousins would be amongst the animals most likely to share our love of music. But that’s not the case. In experiments carried out in 2009 and reported in Biology Letters, tamarin monkeys appeared indifferent to most human music when they were played (which included songs by Nine Inch Nails and Tool). But when they were played music with the human singing swapped for tamarin cries, the monkeys created. Calming cries made them more relaxed, while alarm calls made them more agitated.
There is one outlier though; the monkeys also appeared more content when they were played Metallica’s Of Wolf and Man. Now that’s something that never made it into the reviews….
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