Fish & Music: Does Noise Really Scare Them?


When I was younger, I would always ask my dad if I could play some music when we were fishing out by our pond. He’d always say no. It was either A: that the music would scare all the fish or B: that he hated my music (I was like 12).

To my surprise, loud sounds or music will scare fish. But compared to random noises, which tend to irritate and create a fright reaction in fish, music could possibly lure fish to its source (you) as long as the noise isn’t too loud. 

But how do fish hear music and noise, and what specific impact would this have on them? Should my father have let me (lightly) blast my punk rock/country music to catch more fish? This article will explain to you how fish are able to hear music and noise and how that affects aspects of their behavior and growth.

The Hearing Ability of Fish

It has been established that, even though underwater, fish can detect both the actual sound of music and the sound waves that ripple through the water. Concerning this attention to sound, it’s noticeable that:

  • Fish are attracted to certain sounds and vibrations and not to others.
  • Certain types of music and sounds repel fish while others interest them.
  • Music and other sounds can define the change in the way fish behave in the water, including their eating and swimming patterns.

If your not used to the fishing world, you may imagine that fish are deaf because they don’t look like they have ears. 

However, this couldn’t be further from the truth! The auditory organs of fish are specifically adapted to detect sound in water, whether such sound is waterborne or airborne. Depending on the species, fish use a variety of sound-perception organs, including the fine nerve hairs (cilia), bladder, accelerometers, and otoliths. 

Sound tells fish about their environment. Because sound travels faster and over longer distances in water than in air, fish can pick up distant information about their predators, food sources, or even sounds related to reproduction behavior in the species 1. Fish also use sound cues to tell where the sounds are coming from. 

All of this means that anything that impedes the ability of fish to detect sound can impact their life in a negative way.

While their “underwater eats” allow fish to detect sound, there are other factors determine the effects that sound has on fish behavior and attitude.

Factors that Determine the Effect of Noise on Fish

The factors that determine the reaction of fish to music and other noise are related to the fish themselves, the characteristics of the music or sound, and the ambiance surrounding the fish.

Here are the most prominent of these factors:

Sound intensity

Fish detect better low-frequency sounds because they travel faster and for longer distances. But loud abrupt sounds are amplified and transferred faster in water than they are in the air. If a fisherman in a boat drops his fishing net in a thud at the bottom of the boat, this will scare fish and affect their feeding pattern.

A study among Zebrafish confirmed that loud sounds initially startled fish and caused them to swim to the bottom of the tank as though in search of refuge 2. However, this happened only for a short while. Fish would resume their movement and normal behavior soon after, even though the noise could still be heard. What is not clear is why they tend to ‘forget’ about the startle-sound so fast. 

Type of sound (music)

It appears that fish can distinguish between different types of music. 

Japanese researchers played Bach and Stravinsky’s music intending to find out if fish would distinguish between the two while rewarding them to reinforce the behavior if the differentiation was made. Even though the music was not confirmed as a reinforcement for behavior, the fish were consistently able to differentiate the two music genres [efn_ note] Shinozuka, K., Ono, H., & Watanabe, S. (2013). Reinforcing and discriminative stimulus properties of music in goldfish. Behavioural processes99, 26-33. [/efn_note]. They also showed an outright aversion to particularly noisy sounds. 

Music has also been proposed as a way of decreasing stress in fish aquaculture (carp in this instance) 3. Consistently playing music near or connected to fish growing systems enhances fish adaptation to artificial aquatic environments. 

Size of fish

Smaller fish may be scared by a loud noise, while larger fish may seem indifferent to the same. This is because fish feel water pressure vibration and changes through their skin. 

Small fish may feel the pressure of loud sounds and react by escaping. Larger fishes may, however, react to a loud sound like it’s a potential threat and mount an attack. They might also ignore it as something not harmful. 

A study among Zebrafish indicated that despite the age-related increase in sensory air cells, fish size, not age, was a better indicator of sensory development, implying that larger fish have a more pronounced hearing system 4.

The depth of the water

Sound waves are more widely amplified in shallow water than in deep waters. 

Studies of fish species in both deep and shallow marine waters indicated that deep-water fishes would not detect loud sounds from the surface of the water even though the species are considered to have a good hearing ability 5. The sound is, instead, better detected by fish in shallow waters.  

Fish type and whether water is dark or clear have also been mentioned as possible determinants for how fish detect and are affected by sound. But these have yet to be supported by scientific experiments. 

Can You Attract Fish Using Noise or Music?

Using bait or lures are obviously going to be your best bet to get a good catch. If you’re interested in trying something new (and potentially ineffective), you can make some noise and attempt to attract fish to your boat or fishing spot since their interest will be peaked by the noise if it’s not too loud.

*This is a theory. The best option, if you’re on a boat, would be to lightly stomp on the bottom of the boat at regular intervals. This is the best strategy because it’s cheap (no bringing an expensive speaker), directs the sound right into the water, and isn’t loud or chaotic enough to scare away the fish. 

To be clear, I’m making no promises about this working. There have been no scientific studies examining the efficacy of attracting fish by stomping on your boat floor. If you’re a researcher/fisherman or fisherwoman, please go for it and send the study our way. I’ll be happy to reference it.

All in all, however, you might attract a few curious fish.

Reeling It All Together

From our discussion so far, it is clear that irrespective of whether sounds are loud or softer, simple or complex, they all have some impact on fish.

It does not matter whether it is music or another form of sound, loud sounds have an initial startling impact on fish that may tend to be quickly forgotten, allowing fish to resume their normal movement and behavior inside the water.

Music has, however, been established as a stress-reducing factor in aquaculture, helping fish better adapt to the new environment. 

Fish can detect both waterborne and airborne sounds thanks to their sound-perception organs like the cilia, bladder, otoliths, the inner ear, and the lateral line.

The most you can see of the auditory fish system is a tiny opening on the side of the head that collects sound signals through a series of sound-detecting pores. 

Sound intensity, the type of music, fish size, and the depth of water all have scientific backing for their effect on the way fish detect and ‘interpret’ sound. Other factors, such as the type of fish and the clearness of the water, are for another discussion.

References

  1. Popper, A. N., Hawkins, A. D., Sand, O., & Sisneros, J. A. (2019). Examining the hearing abilities of fishes. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America146(2), 948-955.
  2. Neo, Y. Y., Parie, L., Bakker, F., Snelderwaard, P., Tudorache, C., Schaaf, M., & Slabbekoorn, H. (2015). Behavioral changes in response to sound exposure and no spatial avoidance of noisy conditions in captive zebrafish. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience9, 28.
  3. Vasantha, L., Jeyakumar, A., & Pitchai, M. A. (2003). Influence of music on the growth of koi carp, Cyprinus carpio (Pisces: Cyprindae).
  4. Higgs, D. M., Souza, M. J., Wilkins, H. R., Presson, J. C., & Popper, A. N. (2002). Age-and size-related changes in the inner ear and hearing ability of the adult zebrafish (Danio rerio). JARO: Journal of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology3(2), 174.
  5. Yan, H. Y., Anraku, K., & Babaran, R. P. (2010). Hearing in marine fish and its application in fisheries. Behavior of marine fishes: Capture processes and conservation challenges. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

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