This music could be the cats’ meow.
A UW-Madison psychology researcher has teamed with a composer to create music that moves the feline soul — in a way that human tunes perhaps never could.
Cats showed “a significant preference” for music composed for their own furry species “compared with human music,” the team wrote in an article published recently in the international journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science.
The article captured so much interest that it is the top-ranked item on the journal’s website and sparked a weekend feature story on National Public Radio.
“We wanted to do a study where we could explicitly compare human-based music with cat-based music,” said UW-Madison emeritus professor of psychology Charles Snowdon.
“It raises the question, when we play music at home for our pets, what is it actually doing — is it a good influence on them, a negative influence or no influence?”
For the experiment, Snowdon worked with composer and cellist David Teie, a Wisconsin native who teaches music at the University of Maryland, to create a musical language designed to appeal to the domestic cat.
Teie, who has a longstanding interest in the emotional effect of music on different species, started with the upper range of cat vocalizations (and avoided lower aggressive sounds). The researchers noted that cat vocalizations feature more sliding frequencies than the discrete, individual “notes” used when humans talk or make music. “We (also) picked out tempos that we thought would be attractive to cats,” Snowdon said. “We’re not imitating purring, but one of the pieces has the tempo of purring. Another has the tempo of nursing behavior” in cats. Some are based on the resting heart rate of a relaxed cat.
Teie composed and recorded the music — categorized as “Kitty Ditties,” “Cat Ballads” and “Feline Airs” — on traditional instruments and the human voice.
“No actual cat, mouse, or bird calls are used (although it may sound like it),” according to www.musicforcats.com, where downloads of the music are available for purchase.
Snowdon and Megan Savage, a former UW-Madison undergraduate and now a Ph.D. student at Binghamton University, took a laptop and two speakers to the homes of 47 cats to compare the animals’ reactions to two classical music pieces and two “cat songs” written by Teie.
They found the cats were generally indifferent to the classical works by the likes of J.S. Bach and Gabriel Faure. The cats acted much more interested — showing positive responses such as purring, walking toward the speaker and rubbing against it — when the cat music was played.
The project has its roots in a similar 2009 study where Snowdon and Teie created music for cotton-topped tamarin monkeys.
“We got similar interest from reporters, and one of the things that people kept volunteering was, ‘Oh yeah, I play music for my cats or my dogs all day long,’ ” said Snowdon, who used to own cats before he developed an allergy to them.
“The guy from NPR said his cats liked classical music. The guy from the rock station said his cat loved heavy metal.
“What we discovered was that everybody was sure that their pets liked whatever genre that they themselves liked,” he said. That led to the question: “Do our pets hear the same thing we do?”
Although most people think of cats as very independent animals, “cats really demonstrate separation anxiety when they are away from their (human) ‘servants,’ ” Snowdon said. “A pet shelter with an agitated cat or a depressed cat might be able to use this type of music to help take care of the cat and make it feel better.”
Yet Teie’s music for cats is intentionally easy on the human ear, too, Snowdon said.
“If you’re a cat owner — or a cat servant, sorry — we want to be sure that you want to listen to the music as well.”