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 Fish Make Music - This video takes a look at the science behind a phenomenal art.



 Rhiannon and Brigid in performance


The Jor Jor Music Academy for Goldfish

JJMAG logo        Many top-notch human musicians learn their craft from a music school. The same is true for Smart Small Fry's musical goldfish. Rhiannon and Brigid were educated in the finer points of music performance at the Jor Jor Music Academy for Goldfish. Named after Jor Jor, our very first musical fish (sadly, now deceased), JJMAG is a unique music education program developed by Smart Small Fry. JJMAG's curriculum combines principles and practices of human music education with the science of reward-based, positive reinforcement animal training.

       Our students are initially taught by trainer Diane Rains to ring tuned handbells by pulling on a string. They also master the windchime, which they play by pushing a clapper with their mouths. These "fins-on" (so to speak) instruments lead each fish to an "I can make sounds!" lightbulb moment. Once this realization has been achieved, we teach them to play PiscicianSM, a revolutionary musical instrument developed by Smart Small Fry for our fish prodigies.

       To learn more about our training methods, check out our Hidden Depths blog .

Hulali and Leonani

Rhiannon and Brigid


        Meet Hulali and Leonani, the piscine members of Neptune's Keep. These creative girls are large goldfish adopted from RainGarden Goldfish of Oahu, Hawaii. Hulali is a wakin, a hardy Japanese goldfish variety. Leonani is a comet, a breed known for their long, dramatic tails. Both of these artistic ladies play instruments developed by Smart Small Fry specifically for goldfish. These girls brilliantly follow in the finstrokes of earlier, dearly departed Neptune's Keep musical fish Jor Jor, Brigid, and Rhiannon, whose videos can be viewed on our YouTube Channel.

      The girls have definite preferences about which PiscicianSM instrument voices they prefer. They are happy to play bass, cello, tuba, clarinet, and trumpet. They adore orchestral harp and hammered dulcimer. Bagpipe sends them running (that is, swimming) for cover.

How PiscicianSM Works
Piscician logo

       PiscicianSM is a revolutionary musical instrument designed specifically for fish by Smart Small Fry. Here's how it works: A set of colored targets is affixed to the side of the fish tank. The fish are trained to understand that swimming in front of a target will cause a note to sound. Notes are generated through the cooperation of two computer software programs in conjunction with a camera set up in front of the fish tank. When this camera detects movement across the aquarium targets, it tells the first piece of software: movement in trigger zone 1 (or 2, or 3, etc)! In response, this software sends music generation commands dictating pitch and note length to the second software, which then renders notes in any of dozens of musical instrument voices. The resulting sounds are played on a monitor speaker near or inside the fish tank, so the fish can hear the notes they are creating in real time. This setup gives our fish musicians complete autonomy in composing and performing music. Once they learn how to activate the targets, they choose what notes to play and when to play them. No direction, coercion, or reward is given. The fish play music because they love it, and they figure out for themselves exactly how to move their bodies to achieve the sounds they desire.

For Skeptics

"What?" you say. "Fish making music? Pshaw! Ragwort and puppy snot! That's nonsense."

Informed, objective skepticism is a healthy thing. So folks, let's get healthy.

When I first started training fish, I, too, was a diehard skeptic. I had no doubt that I could train a fish to ring a bell, but I certainly never contemplated the possibility that fish could actually understand and compose music. I mean, their brains are the size of a pea, right? (Never mind the oodles of scientific studies demonstrating that every vertebrate brain tested forms an amazing number of new neural pathways in response to training. That is, education makes you think, and thinking makes you smarter.) But one day, my very first bell-ringing fish (in the days before a target-based instrument) pretty much obliterated my disbelief. I was listening to Barbra Streisand sing "Moon River." My fish, Jor Jor, had access to several of her bells and was close enough to my stereo system's speaker to hear Barbra's performance. The song began with a short instrumental introduction followed by Barbra 's vocal.

I was off at the other end of the room puttering around, and I heard Jor Jor ring a bell - an F note - right on the beat toward the end of the instrumental intro. I thought "Wow, that note just happened to fit perfectly with the structure of the music." So I played the recording again, left the room so my presence couldn't possible cue Jor Jor's behavior, and again, Jor Jor rang the same note in the same spot in Moon River's intro. I played that piece of music seven times. Seven times Jor Jor rang the same bell at the same spot in the Moon River intro, and that one note was all she played. That's when I began to think she might know what she was doing.

Fast forward three years. Jor Jor, sadly, is gone, but I have worked with six other musical goldfish in the past few years (and 14 seahorses, some of whom dance to music). And each of those goldfish played PiscicianSM in a way that, in my informed opinion, simply isn't random. (BTW, if you want to know what makes me qualified to form an objective, scientific opinion, check my bio on Smart Small Fry's site.)

Here's why I believe these fish know what they're doing:

1) When our fish want to play a specific note on a specific beat in the music they hear, they often move vertically across an individual target. They frequently dive straight down, sometimes then rocketing straight up again to play the next note. They do not exhibit this behavior when the targets are not present and no music is playing. (I don't leave Piscician set up all the time; only during recording sessions.)

2) The fish are given eight targets from which to choose, representing a full octave of notes. As any musician will tell you, with that arrangement of notes, there are many opportunities for the fish to play a dissonant note. (A note that sounds very wrong.) Yet, they rarely play a dissonant note when accompanying music they hear.

3) The notes they play in response to music they hear are almost always right on the beat, or syncopated (played quite precisely in between two beats).

4) When the targets are on their tank and background music is playing, they only swim in front of the targets if they like the music they hear and the particular instrument I've chosen for the Piscician installation. (Because Piscician's notes are ultimately created by a computer, they can be rendered in any of hundreds of instrument voices.) If I set Piscician to orchestral harp, clarinet, or acoustic guitar, for example, the fish enthusiastically swim in front of the targets. If I choose saxophone, they rarely activate the targets. If I set the instrument voice to bagpipes, the fish scurry for cover and refuse to go anywhere the targets. (Well, can you blame them?)

5) When a fish first learns that she can make a sound by swimming in front of a target, she often systematically tries each target, listening to the resulting sound - getting the lay of the land. You can observe this behavior in the Blue Hawaii video on our YouTube channel at about 2 mins 25 secs.

6) I am not the first person to demonstrate that fish can comprehend musical structure. An animal behavior researcher at Harvard demonstrated that goldfish can distinguish between specific musical genres (classical vs. blues, for instance). Here's her paper.

7) Music is just organized sound, and sound is just organized vibration. Goldfish hear very well, and in addition, they have an organ on their skin that senses vibration. It makes perfect sense for fish to have evolved the ability to undertand structured sound. In an underwater environment, water can be quite murky, so vision can't always be relied on. Smell isn't a very useful sense, because odor molecules are dissipated in water and carried away by currents. But sound provides important clues that affect the wellbeing of fish. I believe that fish have evolved the ability to understand and interpret pitch, rhythm, tempo, and even harmony, because that ability contributes to their survival. A fish who can distinguish between the pitch, rhythm, and tempo of a bed of seaweed moving in the current, and the pitch, rhythm, and tempo of a shark getting ready to have dinner, is a fish who will live to hear another day.

And if you're still unconvinced this is real, listen to the tracks on our discography web page. Then ask yourself: does what I'm hearing sound random, or musical? If I didn't know anything about this fish music stuff, would I suspect that some of the musicians on this track are not human?

If you are honestly interested in objectively evaluating the POSSIBILITY that a non-human creature might know how to make music (hello, remember birds? and whales?), then investigate. Look at all the videos on our YouTube channel. Do a little science googling. Listen to fish music with an open mind and a musical ear.

And allow yourself the chance to be blown away.

~ Diane

Selected References

Music discriminations by carp (Cyprinus carpio). Chase AR. Animal Learning & Behavior 2001, 29 (4), 336-353

Emotional and spatial learning in goldfish is dependent on different telencephalic pallial systems. Portavella M, Vargas JP. Eur J Neurosci. 2005 May; 21(10): 2800-6.

How Music Touches The Brain

The Evolution of the Cognitive Map. Brain Behav. Jacobs, LF (2003). Evol. 62: 128-139.

The vertebrate mesolimbic reward system and social behavior network: a comparative synthesis. O'Connell LA, Hofmann HA. J Comp Neurol. 2011 Dec 15; 519(18): 3599-639.



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