Lil Nas X
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Music

Can Old Town Road really calm down babies and dogs?

As Lil Nas X continues to smash world records with the ubiquitous Old Town Road, we investigate why it has such a curious effect on babies and animals in particular.
Written by Emma Madden
6 min readPublished on
Do babies still cry when they’re forced into the world now that Old Town Road exists? In the past, it was lullabies and twinkling mobiles that were used to soothe babies to sleep; but now the Pied Piper of Naptime dons a (Gucci) cowboy hat and rides a big ol’ horse.
His name is, of course, Lil Nas X, and an increasing number of viral videos are proving the soniferous power of his massive breakout hit. It's not just fully cognisant grown-ups who are capable of rejoicing in this song. Babies are in on it, too.
While the Lil Nas X smash has initiated conversations around the frankly racist ways in which genres are defined, detonating the idea that black people can’t make country music, the track has also reminded us of our primal relationship with music. Old Town Road doesn't just spark universal joy – it appears to run deeper than that.
Studies have always shown that newborn babies react best to soft rock and reggae, but the tots currently bopping about and snoozing to Old Town Road beg to differ. As would their relieved parents, a growing number of who have tweeted about the positive effects the song has had on their young offspring.
The repetitive nature of Old Town Road, from its ukelele melody to its insistent trap beats, is similar to the constant motion of a baby's heartbeat, which averages anywhere between 100-160 bpm. This matches perfectly with Old Town Road and other in-utero sounds that dominated their world before they were born.
In fact, Chuck Snowdon, a professor of primate social, reproductive, cognitive and communication behaviour at University of Wisconsin-Madison, says that babies will often have a preference for certain sounds and genres of music that their mothers listened to during pregnancy.
“The mother’s taste in music affects that of the newborn infant,” he explains. Which means that we might soon be overwhelmed by a mass of Lil Nas X loving babies. More curious still is the song's powerful influence over animals. Dogs, in particular.
In one viral video, a dog appears to be nonplussed when a selection of songs by Ed Sheeran, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry and Martin Garrix are played, none of which seem to appeal to the dog’s tastes. But as soon as Old Town Road's ukulele riff kicks in, the dog stops gnawing his bone, arches his neck and begins howling along with Billy Ray Cyrus, as if the country singer is the moon.
Neil Evans, a professor of Integrative Physiology at the University of Glasgow, believes the video to be authentic. “There are elements of music that may be particularly good for reducing stress in dogs and maybe Old Town Road happens to have brought them together,” he says.
Evans has been working with the Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to see if music can be used to relax dogs in the stressful environment of a rescue centre. While previous studies have suggested that classical music has the capacity to de-stress dogs, other genres, such as heavy metal, have led to negative behaviour, including head shaking.
There are elements of music that may be particularly good for reducing stress in dogs and maybe Old Town Road happens to have brought them together
Neil Evans
After playing dogs an eight-hour classical music playlist every day, for eight days, Evans noted changes in their behaviour, in the systems that regulate heartbeat, and in their fear and flight response. While the results tallied with previous studies, with dogs appearing more relaxed, by day seven of barking along to Bach, the dogs' behaviour and heart rate variability had almost returned to starting levels. Which suggests that, like humans, dogs have the capacity to get bored when they hear the same music over and over again.
Of course, Old Town Road is the anomaly here. There can't be a person alive who hasn't groaned after hearing it for the umpteenth time before lunch. Dogs, on the other hand, just can't get enough of it – and Evans might have the answer why. In the second stage of his study, he found that pooches respond to a mix of genres. His team played the rescue centre dogs a new genre every day, like at a real-life, dogs-only club. On Monday, it was Motown; on Tuesday, pop; on Wednesday, reggae…
All types of genres were capable of reducing stress and by changing the music each day, the team maintained the relaxing effect of music in the kennel environment. Soft rock and reggae came out on top, obviously. But not by much. One of the students conducting the study even deduced that there was an element of personal preference among the dogs.
Lil Nas X performs on stage during Internet Live By BuzzFeed at Webster Hall in New York City.
Lil Nas X
Perhaps it's because Old Town Road is a fusion of different genres – country, trap and pop, to name a few – that babies and animals alike respond to it in the way they do.
Finally, at 136 beats per minute, Old Town Road is just a little bit faster than a dog’s resting heartbeat, which usually lies somewhere between 80 and 120 bpm. Evans tells us that dogs are more likely to feel relaxed when they hear music at a similar rate to their heart.
Music isn't just for dogs, though. Evans tells us about a couple of papers that found similar effects in farm animals, including dairy cows, whose milk yield was increased by playing certain types of music. Then there’s zoo animals. A body of evidence suggests that primates and elephants show less stereotypical ("abnormal") behaviour when exposed to music. It’s even thought that gorillas, Evans goes on to tell us, possess a near-human discernment for music and are equipped with their own personal tastes. What they think of Old Town Road, however, is yet to be discovered.
So we know that Old Town Road is keeping babies and possibly the entire animal kingdom chill, but what about old folks? Can we expect to feel the same joy upon hearing Lil Nas X when we're in our dotage?
Snowdon reckons so. He’s been working with students involved in work at memory care units tending to patients with dementia and Alzheimer's. So far, they’ve discovered that elderly people with dementia will often respond to music by singing along to songs from their youth, even if they don’t speak at other times.
“I think that music stimulates many parts of the brain, whereas language is limited to one small area,” Snowdon says. Which means our generation might be listening to Old Town Road for many (many, many, many…) more years to come.