Nicolien Janssens

Do fish enjoy blues music?

In the very first episode of our podcast I talked with Henkjan Honing, professor in Music Cognition. His research is currently focussed on musicality in animals. The hope is to find similarities between their musical skills and ours, so that we can explain where our musical ability comes from.

Testing musicality in animals, however, comes with surprising assumptions. One of the things that we believe is that, since our music is so amazing, animals must like our music as well. This became clear when Henkjan talked about the research on musicality in fish. In the experiment, fish were exposed to music from John Lee Hooker and Stravinsky. The aim was to learn the fish to recognize the music of both artists. They did this by training the fish to swim to a specific place in their aquarium: always the same place for the same music. When the fish swam to the correct place, of course they received a nice little treat. And it turned out that after a while, the fish learned to correctly recognize the music.

Initially, you might be inclined to think that this experiment shows that fish can recognize music from John Lee Hooker and Stravinsky. But…can they really? As Henkjan explains, animals actually listen very differently to the sounds that we call 'music'. The fish were simply trained to recognize specific sounds in the pieces of music. So, definitely the fish can hear, but whether they actually enjoy listening to John Lee Hooker remains a mystery. 

It also works the other way around: not only do we believe that animals will like our music,  we also see the sounds that animals make as music. Probably the best example is birdsong. Not for nothing we call the sounds that birds make songs. We believe that this is music! I recently discovered that there is a whole list on Spotify devoted to Birdsong Used in Messiaens Organ Music (who is also mentioned in the podcast, for composing arythmic music). This underlines the idea that we perceive birdsong as music: music artists even record their sounds and release it as songs on Spotify!  Funny enough, the list is separated in European Birds and Israeli Birds. So, we go so far as to even classify animal music just as we classify our own music in world music, blues music, et cetera.

So one thing that has become clear from this is that when looking for musicality in animals, we put a human perspective on both the animals and the sounds they make. Therefore, maybe we should for a moment try to imagine how the world would sound from the perspective of a fish, or a bird. Birds, for example, perceive the same song played on different instruments as different pieces of music. Thus, if you play Sleep, Baby, Sleep on a piano and a guitar, and ask a bird whether the same song is played, they say: no! Can you imagine?! It would be interesting to see how humans would respond in an experiment with fish song. Would we be able to classify their sounds, or more importantly even, would humans be able to enjoy fish music?