When we think of snakes dancing or being hypnotized by music, the following image floats through most of our minds:
A snake charmer sits on a decorative rug in a crowded tourist area in Southeast Asia, playing an instrument called a ‘pungi’, as a cobra sways from within a woven basket, transfixed by the melody.
Many of us never thought twice about snakes ‘dancing’ to a snake charmer’s song. After all, they’re snake charmers! The explanation is in their name. But when you take a closer look, the mystique doesn’t quite add up.
This begs the question: Does music actually hypnotize snakes? If not, why do they seem to move along to the melody?
While snakes only hear a limited range of low-frequency sounds, they’re not hypnotized by music, nor do they dance to it. The swaying of their bodies that accompanies the street performance of snake charming is a combination of a defensive tracking of movement and a response to vibrations acting on their highly developed inner ears.
So if snakes are not hearing music (or, at least not in the way humans experience it), why do cobras in videos of snake charmers sway in time with a snake charmer’s music? And why might your pet snake appear to be ‘dancing’?
Can Snakes Hear?
Unlike lizards and birds, snakes have no external indication whatsoever that they have ears. In the broadest sense, they don’t! Snakes have no external ear structure, no ear canals, and no external ear drum (tympanic membrane). But what snakes do have is a well-developed inner ear capable of picking up on vibrations within a certain range.
In fact, a snake’s inner ears have a feature to them that ours don’t: Their columella bone (the equivalent of the stapes bone in the mammalian middle ear) attaches to their jaw. The columella is a bone surrounded by tissues, with ligaments and cartilaginous tissue holding it in place on either side of the skull.
Why does this matter?
Because the other end of the columella is in contact with the fluids of the inner ear. Aerial, aquatic, and terrestrial vibrations are transmitted to the inner ear through the assistance of the columella creating a bridge between the jaw and inner ear.
Although a snake’s ability to pick up on aerial vibrations is considered more limited than vibrations it picks up from the ground, it can still detect aerial vibrations.
So, Can Snakes Hear Music?
Sound is measured in two ways: decibels and hertz. Decibels measure how loud or quiet a sound is. The louder a sound is, the more decibels it has. Snakes have a much more limited range than humans when it comes to their ability to pick up on quieter sounds. Why?
The inner ear of both humans and snakes has a structural outgrowth that contains a patch of sensory epithelium, from which grow extremely sensitive hair cells that pick up on and respond to sound. Humans have around 12,000 of these sensory hairs per ear that help us perceive softer sounds, while snakes have far fewer. This means that snakes do not have nearly the level of capability that humans have to pick up on quieter airborne sounds.
Depending on the genre, music produces a different range of Hz. The higher the frequency of a sound, the higher the Hz. Higher Hz also means a higher pitch. For example, Rock music averages between 60 Hz to 8,000 Hz. Musicians like John Lennon and Prince are known for tuning their music to around 432 Hz.
Run down the list of genres and you’ll find that your snake can hear some version of just about every type of music. While they may not hear it the exact way that humans experience music, their ears are capable of picking up those vibrations.
Why Do Snakes Move To Music?
Now that you know how a snake’s hearing works, let’s take a closer look at this strange behavior and see whether we can actually call it dancing!
Reason 1: Vibrations
A snake’s ability to hear is often undersold, with many people labeling them as downright deaf. However, snakes have unique inner ears that allow them to sense vibrations within a certain frequency range.
This unique inner ear structure assists them in detecting vibrations between 50 and 1,000 Hz (for comparison, human beings can hear between 20 and 20,000 Hz).
Snakes can pick up on low-frequency rumbles. The human voice speaking at a conversational volume falls within the natural hearing range of snakes. So yes, your snake can hear you talking to it!
This video gives a fuller definition of hertz and what this means in relation to snake hearing:
Although snakes can hear within a limited range, their response to aerial or terrestrial vibrations does not mean they are ‘in the groove’, so to speak. If a sound is too loud, or you’re a fan of cranking up the bass in your speaker system, your snake could become startled by the vibrations and try to flee or hide. So, maybe tone down the bass a bit in their company.
Yes, having no limbs and a complex muscle structure throughout their bodies does contribute to the myth that snakes ‘dance’ — they’re perpetually moving in a rhythmic, smooth way. But snake locomotion is a discussion unto itself and is not motivated by any desire to bust out their (undoubtedly unrivaled) dance moves.
Reason 2: Movement
There are two main reasons that we typically see snakes tracking movement. Either the snake thinks the movement is prey, or the snake perceives the source of the movement as a threat.
In the case of snake charming, the latter of the two is the case (although the snake may also be dehydrated). A combination of factors triggers the defensive response seen during snake charming.
When the snake charmer removes the lid off of the basket or pot that the snake is contained in, the rapid shift from dark to light causes the same temporary blindness that we experience when a light switch is unexpectedly flipped on. In addition to this, there are a number of inhumane ways that venomous species, like the popular Indian cobra, are rendered “safe” to snake charmers, none of which are pleasant for the snake.
Now, as we imagine a wild-caught Indian cobra startled by bright light and in physical discomfort emerging from a basket, reared back in a defensive pose with its iconic hood flared out, where do you think the snake is going to direct its attention? It fixates on the moving object closest to its face: the musical instrument.
So, the snake isn’t really dancing but it is tracking this musical instrument as it moves in front of it.
Moving beyond the realm of snake charming, the same rules apply in your daily life with your pet. Although your snake is hopefully not in any physical pain or discomfort, it can still become startled by sudden movements or changes in light. And yes, that movement includes you!
Similarly, a hungry snake with track heat signatures or scents in the hopes that food is nearby. Even if music happens to be playing while your snake is exhibiting this behavior, the cause of closely tracking motion remains rooted in hunger or self-preservation.
Why Do Snakes Get Hypnotised By Music?
What we perceive to be the snake dancing in snake charming is an illusion. The snake is actually tracking the movement of what it has decided is the most immediate threat to it, in this case, the musical instrument, especially if the snake is a cobra, which has a much better vision compared to pit vipers or boa constrictors.
As the instrument sways back and forth, the snake moves its head and upper body to follow the danger, ready to defend itself. The snake charmer plays music and sways their own body as well, creating the fantasy that the melody has hypnotized the snake.
So Can Snakes Enjoy Music?
Although we can establish that snakes involved in the practice of snake charming are not dancing, does that rule out the possibility that snakes could enjoy music? Well, maybe they can!
We know that snakes can hear in their own way and that certain sounds can elicit a response from them. Some snake owners claim that their pet snake recognizes and enjoys the sound of their voice. And who are we to say otherwise?
In a world where there is still so much unknown about snakes and the sentience of reptile species in general, is it so far beyond the realm of possibility that snakes might find some pleasure in music?
So, snakes may or may not enjoy music, but we know they can hear the vibrations of it within a certain range. While science has yet to crack the enigma that is the complexities of the reptile brain, there has been no evidence to support that snakes dance.
New research has surfaced in recent years that challenges the limits that we previously placed on reptile behavior and emotions. As this knowledge circulates through the reptile community, we as reptile keepers still face the age-old anthropomorphism dilemma: assigning human behaviors and emotions to animals.
Oftentimes, anthropomorphizing our pets is to their detriment–neglecting their actual needs in favor of what we project on them. Not to say that your snake is emotionless, but their feelings and behaviors do not have to mean what ours mean or look like what ours look like in order to be valid, do they?
So, if you see your snake displaying peculiar behavior, table the dance theory for now. Instead, check to see that they are fed, hydrated, warm, healthy, and free from stress! And if you want to connect with your snake through sound, try talking to them. They may not answer, but they can hear you!