Intermediate Topic Fish and Music

Have you ever wondered what effect music has on fish? The article explores the current research.
  1. An anthias from our March 2019 Reef of the Month. A banjo was added by the editor.
    Anthias photo is courtesy of @samparker. ©2019, All Rights Reserved. The editor photoshopped the photo for this article.

    Musical Fish

    Music is an intrinsic part of the human experience, and we’re willing to part with quite a few of our hard-earned dollars to buy speakers, concert tickets, albums and subscriptions to music services. But what about fish?

    Many aquarium keepers query online message boards and communities regarding concerns about aquarium placement in proximity to speakers and sound systems and worry about what effect this might have on their finny housemates. Well, below we’ve summarized some studies and information regarding how fish experience sound, concerns regarding fish and noise, and how various studies involving music have affected fish. Could music be something that could actually enhance the lives of fish? Or is it just more noise pollution to cause them trouble and stress?

    For fish, experiencing sound is a full body experience rather than one involving a specialized set of bones and membranes in one part of the body. Hearing and especially detecting the origins of sounds can be more difficult underwater as sound travels faster underwater than it does in the air, as well sound is refracted more frequently underwater. Fish primarily hear through their lateral lines and their otoliths (internal ears), and some fish such as Carp and Herring use their swim bladders like hearing aids to assist in their hearing, transferring vibrations from their swim bladders into their inner ear.

    Because this hearing method relies in pressure and vibration within the water there are concerns over whether human-generated sound can have a negative effect on fish. In a 2005 study funded by the California Department of Transportation concerns regarding human generated sounds, in this instance construction pile driving, include impacts on fish communication, effects on stress levels, damage to bodily tissues, damage to eggs, permanent loss of hearing and a negative impact on the immune system.

    This is a royalty-free image from Pixabay courtesy of Stevepb.

    And in a study performed by the University of Bristol, exposure to slightly lower decibel noise (equivalent to a commercial speedboat) caused fish to make foraging mistakes and were generally less efficient at regular feeding behaviors. While the fish in the study never abandoned feeding entirely it is important to note that these responses are obvious signs of stress. This means that noise pollution can be an ongoing concern for fish in the wild and similar levels could possibly affect your fish in an aquarium environment if you aren’t careful.

    While fish are a little more shielded in a tank environment from sounds in your home compared to the more direct noise pollution in the wild, loud or particularly vibrative sounds possible effects on fish are still important to consider with placement of your aquariums and noise regulation in your fishes’ area.

    Though it’s clear that loud intrusive sounds can cause stress, what about less industrial sounds like music? While you may think that fish wouldn’t have much of a reaction to music at all outside of it being an alien sound intrusion into their environment, that isn’t really the case. In a study performed by Keio University’s Department of Psychology, music was played near a goldfish tank and certain interesting observations were made. The first of which was that the fish could detect complex properties of sound such as pitch and timbre as well as that they were able to tell the difference between certain types of music and even different composers. The researchers in charge of the study believe that fish prefer classical music to more modern music, as modern music is more likely to contain dissonant elements that make fish uncomfortable. Despite this preference, however, it was noted that the overall preference of fish was no music over any particular composer as fish weren’t willing to hang out in a particular part of their tank in order to have the music turned on.

    Despite these observations a different study examined whether or not music could enrich the environment of captive fish as it can for humans, other primates and even rodents so it seems that while fish may not “prefer” to have music played it can have a positive effect on them none-the-less. A study performed by Heloisa and Leonard Barcellos found that in culture ponds where classical music was played, carps and turbots grew larger and fed more efficiently.

    In a study performed primarily on zebrafish it was found that twice daily exposure to, in this case Vivaldi’s music, for two weeks made them less anxious and more active compared to the group of fish not exposed to the music. However as this took place in a laboratory environment the conclusions also state that it may have simply been that regular exposure to 65-75 decibel sounds simply improved the fishes psychology over the continuous background noise afforded by the lab equipment.

    So while it seems that fish can be positively stimulated by exposure to music it’s not recommended that you keep your tanks in close proximity to a powerful sound system and should definitely avoid sudden blasts of discordant electronica as those may cause a significant amount of undue stress on your fish. At the same time it seems that classical music at a reasonable level (though this is a reasonable level based on the human experience in both studies) could improve the general livelihood of kept fishes.

    There is also ongoing research into whether the noises fish make can be construed as music itself. In any case, perhaps some consideration should be given in tank placement as to what kinds of sounds and at what volume the livestock will be exposed to on a regular basis.

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    These are royalty-free images from Pixabay, courtesy of yunje5054 and Kanenori.



    ·, 06/25/18





    · Mardi C. Hastings, PHD and Arthur N. Popper PHD. Effects of Sound on Fish. California Department of Transportation.

    · Kusku, Halit & Ergün, Sebahattin & Yilmaz, Sevdan & Güroy, Betül & Yiğit, Murat. (2018). Impacts of Urban Noise and Musical Stimuli on Growth Performance and Feed Utilization of Koi fish (Cyprinus carpio) in Recirculating Water Conditions.. Turkish Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. 19. 10.4194/1303-2712-v19_6_07.


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    Author Profile: Peter Steckley

    Peter Steckley is a freelance science writer based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. When he's not studying reef aquariums or testing out new recipes on his family, he's usually reading or enjoying the latest video game releases.

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