Strum the Harp to Purr

By Tanya Silverman

Photo by Tanya Silverman.

Convinced your country cat is a die-hard folk fan? Or maybe you deem your spritely kitten more as a punk rocker?

Well, as close as you are with your beloved feline friends, there’s something about their actual musical taste you may not realize. Their triangular ears are probably privy to neither tango nor rap, techno nor reggae–but music that is specifically designed for cats.

David Teie composed several numbers intended for feline listening. Teie, a cellist and lecturer at University of Maryland, collaborated with University of Wisconsin psychology professor Charles Snowdon–who he worked with in 2009 to write songs specifically for cotton-top tamarin monkeys–to determine which sonic factors were important.

“One is that cats’ normal range of communication is about an octave to an octave-and-a-half higher than where human speech would occur,” Snowdon tells BTR. “So the music is deliberately constructed to be at a higher pitch range.”

Snowdon continues that cats’ thread vocalizations exist within a certain bandwidth that Teie intentionally avoided. In addition, since humans enjoy sharing experiences with their pets, Teie incorporated lower bass lines so that both cats and their owners could listen together.

What does the composed cat music sound like? “Spook’s Ditty” flits and tweets quickly along a playful harp, while “Cozmo Air” hums more slowly, with underscores of soft, purr-like vibrations.

To test out how cats actually received such songs, Snowdon and a former undergraduate student, Megan Savage, set out to experiment with the sounds on 47 domestic felines. This pair of researchers entered homes equipped with a laptop that had audio files of two of Teie’s cat tracks as well as two samples of “pleasant and calm” human music.

“We’d have two speakers set up at about three feet away from the computer at either side,” explains Snowdon. “So we’d play cat music in one speaker for three minutes and we’d play some human music in the other speaker for three minutes.”

The researchers switched respective species-intended songs back and forth and videotaped how the cats reacted. They noted which speaker the cats would gravitate toward and whether they made contact with the object.

“What we found is that cats oriented and moved toward the speaker–actually some times six times more often with the same behaviors [to cat music] than to the human music,” states Snowdon. “They responded about a minute sooner out of three minutes to the cat music.”

The evidence led Snowdon and Savage to conclude that the cats reacted more to cat music than human music. The researchers were also testing for unfavorable feedback from these cats–like arching backs, hissing, or erect fur–but observed that “less than 10 percent of the trials in either case had negative reactions” and there was no difference in either species-specific music.

When enquired as to what further research can be conducted based off of these findings, Snowdon offers a few prospects and explains projects underway. One possible study could be seeing the types of therapeutic effects that the music has on cats, as some cat owners claim that these sounds have positive effects on their pets and even make them socialize.

Another option for future research would be seeing how dogs react to music that is composed to match their tastes. The reason they chose to test cats instead, Snowdon explains, is that the domesticated species is far more homogenous. Canines vary so much that if these researchers wanted to test music on them, such experiments might have to involve different songs for small dogs, medium dogs, and big dogs.

Snowdon says that he is currently on a PhD committee for a student in Cleveland who is looking into what types of acoustic environments are favorable (or unfavorable) for zoo animals.

In addition to testing out different music, Snowdon explains, the student is examining components of zoo environments that humans may like but are actually not so well received by animal inhabitants–for instance, the waterfall.

“It turns out the noise from the waterfall is probably the most damaging thing from the behavior perspective of the animals,” Snowden indicates, “because the animals tend to stay off exhibit more when the waterfall is turned on than when it is turned off.”

Teie is currently working on rendering sounds for prospective “purr instruments” that “each present 23 cycles/second in different guises,” including a bouncing bow and a very fast playing harp. He tells BTR that he wants to eventually develop an app in which “the cat owner could push a button on the screen to begin the purr instrument of choice.” The app will allow a person to communicate with the cat in its own “language,” he adds.

Teie emphasizes that he does not incorporate any actual animal sounds in his species-specific music because “If a sound is clearly recognized, the emotional response to it can be turned off. Since the sounds in music are a bit mysterious, the lack of clear recognition allows the sounds to continuously trigger the emotions.”

The composer would be interested in producing music for zoo animals but has not yet been successful in breaching the bureaucratic steps in such institutes.

“Hopefully, the science will prove to be convincing and the popularity of species-specific music will grow enough for it to be taken more seriously in the future,” Teie reasons.

While there may now be empirical evidence that cats prefer cat music, there are still many avenues open to explore in the fields of sounds and species–plus the science necessary to prove its success in outreach.