If You Can’t Tell the Difference between Bach and Beethoven, Ask Your Goldfish

With it being the holidays and all, I thought I’d bring you some research on a slightly lighter note. Ava Chase has done what I find to be one of the most amusing and still significant experiments of all time on classical music discrimination.

Studies using three koi (Cyprinus carpio) investigated discrimination of musical stimuli. The common protocol used a single manipulandum and a multiple continuous reinforcement-extinction schedule signaled by music of the S+ and S types in 30-sec presentations separated by a silent 15-sec intertrial interval. In a categorization study, the fish learned to discriminate blues recordings from classical, generalizing from John Lee Hooker (guitar and vocals) and Bach (oboe concertos) to multiple artists and ensembles. A control-by-reversal test developed into a demonstration of progressive improvement in iterated reversal learning. The subjects next learned to discriminate single-timbre synthesized versions of similar music. In the final study, which used melodies with the same order of note-duration values, but with mirror-image orders of pitch values, one fish discriminated melodies with no timbre cues, in contrast to results reported in rats.

If you’re scratching your head, you’re right. She ran an experiment with her fish. Carp (that is, the goldfish’s larger cousin) can tell the difference between Baroque and the Blues. So the next time that someone you know complains that all classical music sounds the same, point them to this study, which demonstrates that a fish can tell you that Bach is Bach, even played upside down or backwards.

But wait, there’s more! (to be continued)

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