Let's talk about cat music

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

Who’s your musical hero? Mine is cellist in the US National Symphony Orchestra,

David Teie, a man dedicated to making music accessible – not just to his fellow humans but for animals too!

David Teie’s quest to create music that appeals to tamarins, cats, dogs or horses sounds, at first, a little bit silly – a fact he acknowledges, but doesn’t actually agree with.

“I know it sounds silly,” Teie says, “but what’s really silly is thinking that music could only be for one species.”

So, what makes the music we listen to so human-specific?

Teie believes our relationship to music starts in the womb. For humans this means our mothers’ heartbeat, her breathing and her voice. In fact, the most common tempo in music is 4/4 (or common time) which matches the pattern of a mothers’ breathing plus heartbeat, and it was this insight which gave Teie the basis for his ideas about music for different species.

“I thought,” says Teie, “that if I was right about this, then I should be able to create music for other species. I could take this recipe for music, as it were, take out the ingredients for humans and replace them with the ingredients for whatever species I was writing for”.

It’s an interesting idea, but how does it work in practice?

Teie started working on his theory by looking at one of humanity’s closest relatives – monkeys. He made a list of the top primatologists across the US and began contacting the to see if they would work with him.

Top of his list was Dr Charles Snowdon, a primate communications researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but he was – at first at least – pretty unenthusiastic about the idea. He dutifully sent some recordings of primate vocalisations (the sounds of cotton-top tamarins), wished Teie luck, and forgot about it.

But Teie’s first discoveries were about to change Dr Snowdon’s mind.

Teie set to work learning about tamarin development. He found out that, just like people, tamarins can hear their mothers’ heartbeat and voice in the womb – but the beat is faster and the voices are octaves higher than humans.

Next, he slowed down the tamarin vocalisations and recorded the notes that were being made, and he noticed that the monkey’s emotions seemed to correspond with distinct musical patterns.

Monkeys in a relaxed state made cries that had regular rhythms and constant intervals, while the cries of worried tamarins had irregular rhythms and intervals. And that’s when things got serious for science.

Teie believed that two recordings that had been grouped together by researchers actually communicated wildly different messages for the tamarins. Rather than being similar, one call was an in-group communication, while the other was a threat directed outwards from the group.

Hesitantly, Teie emailed Snowdon with his idea. And he was right. It blew Dr Snowdon away.

“It was astounding,” Dr Snowdon said in an interview with the Washington City Paper, “He’d never met a tamarin before, but he could tell the emotional state that the monkey was in just through a musical analysis of the call.

Teie and Snowdon combined to see what they could find out. Teie composed two types of songs, some to calm the tamarins down, and some to amp them up.

They worked, with the monkey lullabies soothing the tamarins and the amped up music getting them excited.

But for Teie, this was just the first step. He now had his “recipe” for making species specific music, and he set out to test it on cats too.

Going back to his drawing board, Teie realised that the ingredients for cat songs are different from primates.

We cats can’t hear until around a week after we’re born, so there wasn’t much point in Teie including the sound of the mother’s heartbeat or breathing. Instead Teie focused on the sounds that kittens begin to hear as their ear canals open after birth – the sounds of purrs (made up of two beats and two sounds), of suckling on milk and the mew of other kittens.

With these ingredients, Teie turned to his recipe and wrote two songs intended to relax cats, and one of Dr Snowdon’s students led a study to see what the effect was.

Amazingly 77% of the cats who took part in the study reacted positively to Teie’s songs. Inspired Teie has gone on to create and album of “cat music”, recorded on human instruments, but also mixed with ultrasound frequencies that only the cats can hear and sped up instrument sounds, which was released in 2016.

Since heading down the road of creating music for other species Teie hasn’t looked back, continuing to find the “ingredients” for the musical recipe that suits different species.

He’s begun collaborating with the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Columbia University to work out how to make music for dogs – a huge challenge given the size and vocalisation differences between the smallest and largest dogs – can a mastiff and a chihuahua like the same music?

Finally, Teie, who comes from a family of equestrians – is looking at how to create soothing music for horses, but here he found the largest hurdle to be not creating the music but enabling the horses to hear it.

“Horses are a prey species,” says Teie, “so they’re always listening for threats”. If you want them to hear the music you must eliminate other noises, leading to the development of noise cancelling headphones that can accommodate a horse’s rotating ears.

Teie intends to continue his inter-species music work and is working on a new album for cats, and with more research underway about the effects of music on animals – especially cats – it might not be too far in the future when we see cat wards in vet clinics washed in the soft sounds of cat music to help keep them calm and soothed.

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