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Fish Listen to Music, Prefer Bach

Goldfish are no dummies when it comes to music, and they can distinguish between two well-known composers.

Goldfish not only listen to music, but they also can distinguish one composer from another, a new study finds.

The paper adds to the growing body of evidence that many different animals understand music.

Lead author Kazutaka Shinozuka of Keio University's Department of Psychology told Discovery News that "goldfish could detect complex properties of sounds, such as pitch and timbre."

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For the study, published in the journal Behavioural Processes, Shinozuka and colleagues Haruka Ono and Shigeru Watanabe played two pieces of classical music near goldfish in a tank. The pieces were Toccata and Fugue in D minor by Johann Sebastian Bach and The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky.

The scientists trained the fish to gnaw on a little bead hanging on a filament in the water. Half of the fish were trained with food to gnaw whenever Bach played and the other half were taught to gnaw whenever Stravinsky music was on. The goldfish aced the test, easily distinguishing the two composers and getting a belly full of food in the process.

The fish were more interested in the vittles than the music, but earlier studies on pigeons and songbirds suggest that Bach is the preferred choice, at least for birds.

"These pieces can be classified as classical (Bach) and modern (Stravinsky) music," Shinozuka explained. "Previously we demonstrated that Java sparrows preferred classical over modern music. Also, we demonstrated Java sparrows could discriminate between consonance and dissonance."

"Generally speaking," he added, "modern music includes much dissonance. Thus, although there is no direct evidence, Java sparrows might prefer classical music because of less dissonance."

Goldfish | iStockphoto

In general, non-human animals prefer silence to our music.

"Did we really think that bats would get little tears flowing up their little faces when listening to the Ave Maria?" said David Teie, a lecturer in the School of Music at the University of Maryland who is also a professional cellist.

Teie studied how cotton-top tamarins react to music. The monkeys showed little response, but surprisingly seemed to calm down whenever they heard the heavy metal band Metallica.

The diminutive, fluffy monkeys also listened intently to music Teie created that was based on the structure of their own calls.

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Shinozuka did not rule out that it might be possible to tailor make music to please fish and other non-human species, but said "ability for acoustic communications" might be needed by the animal.

There appears to be no winning formula, though, for creating music to please all people.

As Shinozuka said, "Some people enjoy classical music, but other people become sleepy when they hear it. Some people enjoy rock music, but other people experience it as noise."

In terms of the fish findings, Clive Wynne of the Arizona State University Department of Psychology told Discovery News that he agrees with the new study's conclusions.

Wynne said "the paper shows that fish hear sounds and can tell the difference between two pieces of music ... Whereas people will pay money for music, the fish were not willing to hang out in a particular part of their tank in order to have the music turned on."

Many families keep goldfish for pets. Shinozuka suspects most of us underestimate their abilities.

"Scientific studies have demonstrated that fish are more intelligent than people believe," he said. "Please value your goldfish!"

Nemo's revenge

Underwater photographer Jason Isley of Scubazoo.com, based in South East Asia, might be having a bit too much fun documenting marine organisms.

Speeding ticket - chromodoris sea slug

After taking thousands of photos of nudibranchs, Isley wanted a way to get more creative. He began adding miniature figurines to his shots - warning hilarity ensues... All prints are available for purchase (visit: http://photogallery.scubazoo.com/Underwater/UnderwaterMiniatures).

Quiet stroll on the beach with striped catfish

Underwater invasion - bobbit worm

Magic mushrooms - mushroom coral

Leave my garden alone! Damsel fish with algae garden

Waste management - seacucumber poo!

Gone fishing - striated hairy anglerfish

Fishing is so boring - striated hairy anglerfish

Tending to the garden - xmas tree worms

Underwater invasion - Blue ring octopus

Flamboyant cuttlefish eggs