Cats seem pretty apathetic about a lot of things. You might think music is one of them. But according to a new study, it's not that cats don't care about music – it's that they don't care about YOUR music. So what kind of music do cats appreciate? We're so glad you asked.
A recently published study in the journal Applied Animal Behavioral Science concludes that cats prefer "species-appropriate" music.
"We have developed a theoretical framework that hypothesizes that in order for music to be effective with other species, it must be in the frequency range and with similar tempos to those used in natural communication by each species," write study authors Charles Snowdon and Megan Savage, both psychologists at the University of Wisconsin, and David Teie, a musician who has collaborated with Snowdon on the study of species-specific music for the better part of a decade. For instance, Snowden and his colleagues propose feline-appropriate music might mimic the rhythmic and tonal qualities of a purr, or a kitten suckling at its mother's teat.
Here's an example. The following clip is from a song titled "Cosmo's Air." It was composed by Teie. The tune, the researchers write, "has a pulse related to purring of 1380 beats per min... with melodic sliding frequencies covering 44% of the sample" (sliding frequencies are found in a variety of cat vocalizations, but aren't commonly found in human speech):
To test their hypothesis that cats prefer music specially designed for their listening pleasure, the researchers played "Cozmo's Air" and one other example of Teie's feline-specific music in counterbalanced order with two examples of human music (viz. Johann Sebastian Bach's "Air on a G String" and Gabriel Fauré's "Elegie") for 47 different domestic cats, and evaluated feline behavior in response to each piece.
"Cats showed a significant preference for and interest in species-appropriate music compared with human music," the researchers write. Expressions of approval included purring, and orienting the head toward, moving toward, rubbing against, or sniffing the speaker from which the music was emanating. "The results suggest novel and more appropriate ways for using music as auditory enrichment for nonhuman animals," the researchers conclude.
That co-author David Teie sells feline-specific music on his website, musicforcats.com, is sure to raise flags for some of you. I know it did for me. That said, the authors note that Teie was not involved in the design of the study. Neither was he involved in the research or data analysis portions of the investigation. Cat behaviors were scored during music-exposure sessions by one observer, while video footage was independently scored later, by a second person – though the study makes no mention of who, specifically, did this scoring, or whether they were blinded to the species specificity of the music being played.
It's also worth mentioning that Teie's interest in species-specific music predates the cat-study by a number of years. He's also interested in species besides cats. His first major contribution to the scientific literature came in 2009, with a study, published in Biology Letters, that showed small monkeys called cotton-topped tamarins "were generally indifferent to playbacks of human music, but responded with increased arousal to tamarin threat vocalization based music, and with decreased activity and increased calm behaviour to tamarin affective vocalization based music." According to Teie, "it marked the first controlled study that showed a consistent and appropriate response to music from any species other than human. I'll be the first to admit I didn't exactly do a deep dive looking into this, but, best I can tell, his claim holds up.
Anyway, at the very least, Teie and Snowdon's most recent study gives you a chance to experiment with your pets at home. Teie has samples of the music used in the study on his website, along with music that incorporates other feline-specific sounds not directly associated with communication, including "stylizations of some of... animal calls that are of great interest to cats." Consider, for example, this clip from a cat-song called "Spook's Ditty," which incorporates noises resembling birdcalls. "A little like sonic catnip," Teie writes on his website, "ditties are meant to arouse interest and curiosity":
I don't own any cats, but when I played this song for my dog (a pointer-breed with a known affinity for birds and their noises), her ears perked right up at the sounds resembling bird calls. Data point of one and all that, but feel free to try it on your own household animals with this and other samples available on Teie's website.
Read the full study in Applied Animal Behavioral Science.