I’ve lived with two dogs in my life, both of them very good boys. Sammy, my first dog, was a foundling, abandoned in a box outside a grocery store in St. Louis. When I played the piano, he would curl up at my feet and rest his chin on my pedal foot as I played Chopin’s Nocturnes, his head bobbing up and down to the music.
Nathan, my current dog, was rescued from a shelter in South Carolina. He is a border collie mixed with Newfoundland — a “borfie,” we dubbed him, but the name hasn’t caught on. He is loving and mischievous, always looking for an angle, and the bane of deer, rabbits, birds and squirrels, none of which he has ever caught. But he has one quirk that has made my life difficult for the past eight years: He hates music.
Not only does he hate music, but he hates classical music especially and the piano in particular. When I adopted him, I was learning to play Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and he developed a vehement animus against the piece, howling and barking every time I practiced it. I wrote in passing about his aversion in a recent memoir about the Goldberg Variations, which I started learning in a futile attempt to mitigate grief after my mother died in 2011. I was mainly concerned with how humans experience music, how they use it to process emotion and give meaning and structure to life. But Nathan’s dislike of the piece was so acute, I couldn’t help but include it in the narrative. Did he really recognize the music? Could he pick Bach out of an aural lineup? And, if so, why does he so dislike a piece I love so much?
My friends have plenty of theories. He’s just singing along. Or, from my sharper-tongued acquaintance: He’s a critic. People send me YouTube videos of dogs vocalizing with gusto while they paw away at the keyboard, extemporizing comic arias. Some observers, particularly those who haven’t lived with a dog, suggest poor Nathan should “just get over it.” They find it ridiculous that I have resorted to hiring dog walkers to free up time for practice, or that in pre-pandemic days, I sent him to day care twice a week to ensure a few hours of undistracted piano time. When friends gather at my place for supper, the most-requested after-dinner music is an appearance by Nathan, howling piteously along to the opening aria of the Goldbergs.
His dislike of music isn’t funny, at least not to me. I know him well enough to be certain that he isn’t singing when I play Bach. When the music starts, he stalks the piano, then howls, and if I keep playing, he leaves the room and heads to the farthest spot he can find in the house. Even from there I can hear him whimpering. I’ve long since stopped making music when he is in earshot. But what, exactly, is going on? Does the music simply hurt his ears, or does he really hate Bach?
There is evidence for both possibilities, and recently I decided to dig a little deeper into animal psychology to find an answer. I haven’t definitively solved the mystery, and until Nathan learns to talk, I probably never will. But after speaking with experts in animal cognition, animal musicology and evolutionary biology, I’m more convinced than ever that what seemed to me at first an unlikely possibility is, in fact, true: that Nathan knows the music of Bach and associates it with painful trauma from his past. That, in turn, has made me newly humble about the music humans make, including the music I love most, the canons and fugues of Bach.
“What are you observing that makes you conclude your dog ‘hates’ Bach?” asked Patricia Gray, an emeritus professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and head of the BioMusic Research Initiative. Gray is a concert pianist and researcher who has studied the music-making capacities of other animals. In her email, she put “hate” in quotation marks because she thinks the term confuses things. “Love and hate are as loaded with complexity as is the word music,” she said in a later interview. Using those terms in relation to animals “can get you into real shark-infested waters very quickly.”
Her initial email, and several scholarly papers and abstracts she sent me, were invitations to be intellectually cautious about everything involving animals and cognition. Don’t anthropomorphize. And don’t assume you know what your dog is telling you. But also: Don’t be so sure you know what it is humans are doing when they listen to music. We exist on a continuum, and animals and humans use music for many of the same reasons: to “affiliate” with each other; to find a mate; perhaps even to relax.
Like other researchers I spoke with, Gray asked a lot of questions and trusted my instincts about Nathan so long as I justified them. I told her that Nathan doesn’t just howl at Bach. His tail and ears drop, his head sags, he leaves the room.
“Okay, so he is communicating stress to you,” she said. “He has been programmed to interpret these sounds as some kind of fear, and we don’t know why.”
Musicians, including amateurs like me, may be particularly attuned to what is sometimes called zoomusicology. The 19th-century French composer Camille Saint-Saens dislikedpeople, especially women, but loved animals, and was keenly aware of the musical behavior of the animals in his life (he also wrote a beloved suite called “The Carnival of the Animals”). He had a dog named Delilah, a black griffon, who responded vehemently to music. “On hearing a piano being played she uttered the most piercing cries,” he wrote in an essay on music and animals. “Whether she liked or detested it I do not know.” He also had a dog who loved the piano but hated Chopin, and he claimed when he played the piano in the countryside, spiders gathered near the instrument.
One conclusion from this is also emphasized by contemporary researchers: There is an enormous variety of responses among animals to different kinds of music. Historically, zoomusicology has often tended to broad generalizations: Music can “affect a camel’s pace, persuade horses to drink, charm reptiles and lure birds,” wrote Ibn al-Haytham, an Arab scientist who lived a thousand years ago. Some contemporary researchers also tend to look for broad, species-wide conclusions about music and animals. By measuring stress markers, including heart rate and cortisol (often called “the stress hormone”) in saliva and urine, researchers have attempted to discern what kind of music is calming to dogs, especially those in stressful situations such as confinement in an animal shelter. In a survey of recent articles about dogs, music and stress, researchers concluded that, “Overall, classical music was associated with dogs spending more time sitting or lying down, resting and sleeping, and less time vocalizing and standing.”
That certainly doesn’t apply to Nathan, but that shouldn’t be surprising, said Paul McGreevy, one of the authors of the survey. “We shouldn’t assume that they are all the same,” he said from Australia, where he is a professor of animal behavior and welfare at the University of New England. McGreevy’s work focuses on the complexity of animal responses, the variety and the individual factors that make broad generalizations problematic. He advocates careful study and observation of individuals. Like Saint-Saens, I was surprised, or at least curious, that my first dog, Sammy, seemed to like music while Nathan clearly doesn’t. But the physical shape of the two dogs may, in part, explain some of the difference. Another paper by McGreevy looks at how the size, weight and head shape of dogs may correlate to behavior.
As a chow, Sammy had a relatively high “cephalic index,” which measures the ratio of the width to the length of the skull. As a borfie, with a long snout, Nathan has a lower cephalic index.
“The distance between the ears will predict the sort of frequency that dogs are particularly good at picking up,” McGreevy said. He makes no conclusions about what the cephalic index might mean for how dogs hear music. But it could be one factor that explains the difference in reaction between my two dogs. Nathan may be averse to Bach, but he’s also averse to fast, high, repetitive passages in Mozart, Beethoven and even Chopin. That argues for a more purely auditory, or sonic aversion to music.
So perhaps it has nothing to do with Bach at all? But if so, why does he seem so particularly opposed not just to Bach, but to this one piece by Bach? Years ago, I was watching “The Silence of the Lambs” on television. As Hannibal Lecter is brought his dinner in an isolation cell, he listens to the aria of the Goldberg Variations on a portable cassette player. As soon as the scene began, Nathan came from another room, whimpered at me and shot baleful glances at the television. He didn’t stop until Lecter began brutally murdering his captives, which was accompanied by more conventional horror-film music.
Over the years, I have framed Nathan’s odd relationship to the Goldberg Variations as a basic question: When he howls, is he saying “this hurts,” or it something more like, “I don’t like this song”? Is it some kind of primal aversion, or is it something more sophisticated, a matter of taste or preference? In short, is he responding like an animal to a stimulus, or like a human to music?
The answer, it seems, may be both, which suggests that the question — the dichotomy — is basically flawed. I asked Monique Udell, an associate professor at Oregon State University and a Wallis Annenberg PetSpace Leadership Institute fellow (a Los Angeles-based group that seeks to “strengthen the human-animal bond”), whether Nathan could have emotional associations not just with sound, but with music. Dogs, she said, definitely form associations and even emotional responses to sounds, like the noise you make when you open a can of dog food or jingle your keys before a car ride. But, she added, “they could form associations with pieces of music. What it is specifically they feel or think, we can only guess at.”
My theory all along has been: When I adopted Nathan, I was practicing the Goldbergs for hours at a time. He was just 3 months old, and going through the trauma of having been torn from his mother and his litter. He was alone in a strange place, and the Goldbergs were the music he heard during this time of pain and confusion. In the book, I wrote, “When he hears this music, he misses his mother.”
Udell suggested an experiment to help figure this out. While I play the piano, my partner should train him to do a particular trick, like roll over or lift a paw. Every time he does it right, the “reward” is I stop playing the Goldberg Variations. This would give him some control over the music, some sense of agency, and I am definitely going to try it. All the researchers I spoke with said this concept was critical for improving the lives of animals. They need to engage with us, and the world, and have some sense that things like sound — or music — aren’t just happening to them, but something they have power over, too.
Would that make him “hate” Bach less? Perhaps. From a human’s perspective, it makes sense: If you have no choice over the music being played, it can be maddening. We may choose to listen to music that makes us sad for its cathartic value. But if we were forced to listen to that music, and had no sense of when or if it would ever stop, it wouldn’t be catharsis. It would be torture. Literally. (The CIA reportedly used heavy metal music to try to break Iraqi prisoners after the 2003 Gulf War.)
And that helps explain why human beings should be a little humbler about how they experience music. The more we sense we “control” music, the more likely we are to think of music as a uniquely human thing. When I say Bach was a “great” composer, one thing I mean is: He had enormous control over the music, every detail, every line. Humans tend to think that animals — birds, whales — must make and experience music unconsciously, as if it is beyond their own control, pure instinct. But much of what I love in Bach, and other composers, is experienced at the same level of primal reaction. Indeed, the human experience of music is grounded in reactions that resemble those of animals far more than we are willing to acknowledge.
So: I learned to play the Goldberg Variations when I was mourning my mother. Nathan first heard the music while he was experiencing the loss of his mother. The main difference is: I could choose what I was playing, when to start, when to stop. Nathan just had to listen.