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Easy listening

Species-specific tunes could be music to your kitty's ears

All Animals magazine, May/June2018

By Karen E. Lange

Photo illustration by Pat Ormsby/The HSUS; cat image: Bullet_Chained/iStock.com; background image: Myillo/iStock.com.

There is the two-beat rhythm of suckling—perhaps the first sound a kitten hears. And there are purr-like thrums. And bird songs. Violin notes rise like cat voices, one octave or more above human speech. Below, cellos play: calm, soothing, slightly sad.

This is Music for Cats, created by cellist David Teie of the University of Maryland at College Park, with Charles Snowdon, an animal behaviorist at the University of Wisconsin. Performed by a 10-person ensemble on violin, cello, harp, bass, piano, percussion, bass clarinet and bassoon, the music is “composed for cats, verified by science, for the first time ever,” according to the liner notes on the Kickstarterfunded album. A second album, with improved “suckling instruments” and 13 “purr instruments”—computer-modified acoustic recordings—is scheduled to be released this year.

The suckling instruments grew from sounds that included a spray bottle shooting water onto cloth, a cane scraping against canvas and a percussionist scratching his beard. Teie’s favorite purr instrument combines recordings of drumsticks tapping on a toy football with mouthgenerated wind sounds and the cluck of a human tongue.

“Altogether it took five people and four different software programs about two weeks to come up with the 2-second finished sound of that,” Teie says.

Felines are indifferent to the cellos and the other lower-pitched instruments on both albums, but they are there for a reason: human caregivers. The music was written to be shared between the species, deepening the connection between you and your cat.

“Music fundamentally is communication,” says Teie, who has played cello with the National Symphony Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony. “We love our pets. This is another way to communicate. You put on something for the other.” Perhaps you’ve tried using music to calm a nervous kitty or energize a bored one. If so, you’re not alone: Many pet owners leave a radio on for animals at home, or play classical tunes while driving their pets to the vet.

Scientists have attempted to measure the effects of music on a variety of species. The results of those tests have been mixed, which makes sense, says Teie, because until now, the music people played for animals has been designed to appeal to the human ear—the pitch attuned to what we can hear, the rhythms chosen to speak to our emotions. And the composers didn’t consider the feelings the music might inspire in other species, including fear and anger.

“Some of what we find appealing is irritating to animals,” he explains. “Animals tend to express threats in the lower registry.”

Teie began his work in the early 2000s by thinking about what elements make music appealing to people. At the time, he was preparing a series of talks on how performers could modify their playing to enhance humans’ appreciation of musical structures. He theorized that the pulse and melodies of music come from what the fetus hears in the womb—a mother’s heartbeat and voice—in the frequency range and rhythms of human speech. Eager to test these ideas, Teie contacted Snowdon, an expert on human and primate communication and cognition who has studied how music creates shared emotional experiences. The two began to build music for other species, with Teie composing the music and Snowdon testing its effects. To produce calming effects, Teie used harmonies, pure tones and regular rhythms and avoided dissonance and irregular beats.

Photo illustration and album covers by Pat Ormsby/The HSUS; cat image: Diane Lambombarbe/iStock.com; album cats: Bullet_Chained/iStock.com; background: Myillo.com/iStock.com; shelves:
record player, speaker and album stacks: Jdawnink/iStock.com.

Soon the two researchers focused on cats, hoping to tap into the huge market for pet products and raise money for Teie’s research. Because cats are born at a much earlier stage of brain development than human babies, the first sounds kittens can hear and remember, as their ears begin to function outside the womb, are suckling and purring while they nurse. Teie used these elements as the basis for his first two songs: “Cozmo’s Air” and “Rusty’s Ballad.”

It worked. When the songs played, cats oriented their bodies toward the music, approached the speakers and rubbed up against them, sniffing and purring. (In contrast, cats didn’t react much to the human music—Fauré’s “Élégie” and Bach’s “Air on the G String”—used as controls.) The effect was not universal, though: Of the 47 cats tested, youngsters and seniors responded more than middle-aged kitties to Teie’s compositions.

Want to try the music on your own cats? Play a sample snippet available at musicforcats.com, and watch. It’s probably best to observe when your cats are awake, fed and not distracted by, say, kids or dogs. Do they seek out the source of the music? Does their mood change? Do they exhibit unusual behavior?

Many pet owners who’ve tried the music say their kitties are more affectionate, more confident or seem calmer when they listen.

“Our younger cat … moved to the couch where the older cat was sleeping, curled up next to him and started purring. They are now asleep and have both adjusted position so that their heads are almost touching … These cats generally hate each other,” wrote one person.

“My skittish kitty Aislynn stopped moving, just staring at me like she’d found God,” another owner reported. Anecdotes shared with Teie and Snowdon suggest that cats who have been abused or neglected or were once feral are particularly affected by the music. The two researchers hope the music can be used to reduce separation anxiety and stress for pets left home alone and for newly adopted animals.

“The cats most in need of comfort are the most comforted by the music,” says Teie. “The more stressed the cat is, the more the music seems to be working.”


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