Anker portable speaker on top of a fish tank.

Do Fish Like Music and How Sound Impacts Your Tank

If you are like me and listen to music all the time, choosing the right spot for a fish tank becomes even more challenging. Especially if you like loud music.

While there is a discussion to be had about whether fish like music at all, they certainly don’t headbang.

It is safer to assume that fish don’t like music. For them, sound is a functional, immersive experience. Virtually all species use it to orient themselves. It guides social interaction and movement in shoaling and schooling fish. Loud, sudden noises startle them, and prolonged exposure can be damaging.

You’ve probably seen aquariums in restaurants, hotel lobbies, and dental clinics, but what about at a nightclub or a bar?

Sparse exposure to music, particularly if its source is not very close to the aquarium, will not damage your aquatic pets. However, prolonged blasting of loud beats will stress them out unnecessarily and may eventually kill them.

Music is an entirely artificial experience created by humans for humans.

Hearing in fish serves a functional purpose.

How Do Fish Hear

Fish perceive sound much more immersively than humans.

Our sound conductor is the light, invisible, immaterial air. 

For aquatic animals is the dense, engulfing, heavy water.

Also, we primarily use solely our ears to detect sound. Only if the sound is very loud do we experience it with our diaphragms.

Fish have two or three sonic detectors. The largest stretches along the entirety of their bodies.

The exact hearing mechanisms vary among species, but here are the different hearing organs:

  • Lateral line
  • Inner ear with otoliths (hearing stones)
  • Swim bladder

Virtually all species use their lateral lines and inner ears to detect and interpret sound, but some don’t have a swim bladder, or it isn’t that suited for conducting sound to the ear.

The lateral line is a complex organ that has hair cells similar to those in the ear. They detect vibrations in the water, as this is what sound is — a vibration. Basically, the lateral lines are extremely sensitive to water movement.

Schooling fish use them to swim together, knowing at all times where their friends are. Shoaling fish do the same, and all species use them for spatial orientation.

The fish’s inner ears use otoliths to capture and interpret vibrations from the environment. Often the swim bladder, which is filled up with gas and has a different density than the surrounding water, transmits the vibrations it catches to the inner ear.

Regardless of the exact mechanism, hearing helps fish orient themselves. This is the very reason why it evolved in the first place — to provide information about the environment. The ability to actively produce and communicate through sound appeared much later.

And while modern fish are much more evolved than their prehistoric ancestors, claiming that they like music is a bit of a stretch.

How Sounds Travel Underwater

Sound travels differently underwater. 

When discussing fish tanks, the exact physics aren’t all that relevant. The bottom line is that if you blast loud music, it will reach all corners of the tank.

However, the sound will be distorted. Water is denser than air, and our music is composed to be played through air.

Add to that the fish’s different sensory systems, and it is unclear how music sounds to them.

Still, more and more academic research on the topic of noise pollution appears. Not all results align to confirm clearly whether fish like music, but the majority agree that prolonged exposure to artificial sound is not beneficial.

How Sound Impacts Your Tank

Several academic studies reveal that constant exposure to loud noise can damage and kill the fry and damage grown fish. Exposure to noise lowers fish activity levels and induces abnormal behavior patterns.

Other papers report that grown fish get used to noise pollution after the initial stress and change in behavior it causes.

While there is a lot more to be explored, scientific evidence strongly indicates that fish and noise don’t coexist particularly well.

A couple of experiments have tried to determine whether fish like music, and there is anecdotal evidence that they appreciate certain rhythmic sounds.

The most widely quoted study concerns goldfish and classic music.

Do Goldfish Enjoy Music?

Plenty of articles quote a study about goldfish and their experimental exposure to the music of Bach. Done in Japan, that insightful research is widely misquoted.

The results do not prove that goldfish prefer Bach over Stravinsky. It is not as if the great Johannes Sebastian Bach has a massive underwater audience and that only depressed sharks listen to the captivating Stravinsky.

Let’s be real here, if fish music ever catches on, its first great hit is already out.

The study was designed to prove whether fish can memorize, detect, and recognize (sound) stimuli. It proved that goldfish can remember and recognize repeatedly played music and associate it with certain behavior.

When Bach was played, the fish were given food. Eventually, they learned to recognize his music as something good.

What the experiment shows is not fish’s affinity to music but that they are trainable.

Can I Play Music to My Fish?

You certainly can play music to your fish, but you should avoid it.

While having the occasional gathering around the fish tank is only natural and can involve music, place the speakers away from the aquarium. Music, however rhythmic it can sound to us who grasp it in its entirety, can be loud and scary for the fish.

If the sound source is close to the aquarium, it is likely to have a disorienting effect on its inhabitants.

You can use specific tracks to teach your fish certain behaviors if you are inclined to play and interact with them. Training fish is similar to training any other animal — lots of repetition and rewards are necessary to achieve results.

Again, should you go that way, make sure that the sonic stimulation is not overwhelmingly loud and scary. Also, don’t do it at night, when fish sleep.

In conclusion, while there is anecdotal evidence of fish liking music, the majority of academic research points out that regular noise pollution can harm your aquatic pets.

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