Can we emotionally connect with our pets through music? Some researchers say yes.

If music does indeed soothe the beasts, savage or otherwise, how would a cat respond to music composed especially for them?
Cat Illustration
Illustration sources Getty Images

A friend of mine, also named Michael, is a longtime cat owner who frequently serenades his pets with classical music. Michael says his current cat, a big orange tabby named Lexington, is a particular fan of chamber music and shares his owner’s passion for Antonín Dvořák. If music does indeed soothe the beasts, savage or otherwise, how would Lexington and any other cat respond to music composed especially for them?

On a chilly spring afternoon earlier this year, several of us decided to find out. Our host was Scott Anderson, who lives above his exercise studio in Blue Mounds with two cats, Biddy and Ruthie. We ran our informal experiment under the guidance of Charles Snowdon, a University of Wisconsin–Madison professor emeritus and biological psychologist who has done significant work in this area.

Biddy, a 6-month-old, ginger-colored American shorthair kitten, padded inquisitively into the spacious downstairs level of the studio. Snowdon sat poised with a notebook and his laptop, ready to lead the unofficial experiment based on his earlier research that tested this thesis: Can music give us a common emotional language that effectively bridges communication gaps between cats and humans?

dr. taking notes next to a computer and a cat

Biddy with Charles Snowdon (Photo by Beth Skogen)

“Long, slow notes should effectively calm an agitated cat, while short bursts should stimulate activity,” Snowdon told us. “Past work in this area indicates that we can manipulate the animals’ emotional state by the types and sounds of music that we play.”

Snowdon, who is best known for his work with endangered primates, was first contacted about testing cats and music in 2007 by David Teie, a cellist with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. Although Teie had no science background, he was an accomplished performer and composer with an interest in creating music that addressed animals’ emotional needs. Snowdon had sung in choirs and choruses but had no specific musical background other than being what he calls “a good audience.” The pair chose cats because of the animals’ greater uniformity in size and more homogeneity in voice pitches compared to, say, dogs. Based on Snowdon’s research, Teie composed music he felt would mimic cat sounds within the animals’ hearing range, which is a full octave higher than humans. He also added a bass line to make the music more appealing to humans. The response from cat-lovers was nothing short of remarkable.

“Our link to animals led to hundreds of interviews in the early 2000s, with The New York Times ranking it as one of their top stories of the era,” Snowdon says. “Many readers contacted us, convinced their animals loved the same music they did — but that’s not really the case.”

Teie has since made several 30-second excerpts of cat-friendly compositions available on his website, musicforcats.com. In Blue Mounds, Snowdon hit play on his laptop and we watched Biddy amble about the high-ceilinged studio, seemingly unmoved by the first “control” selection: Bach’s elegant “Air on the G String.” Then the researcher played “Rusty’s Ballad,” a Teie composition with a distinctly feline orientation — and Biddy paused her activities from across the room, twitching her ears in the direction of the music.

“The tempos vary and are appropriate for cats,” Snowdon explained later. “One duplicates the rhythm of a chirping bird, another has the same tempo as purring. Cats also vocalize using lots of ‘slides,’ gliding from one pitch to another.”

Biddy’s initial attention, while short, seemed deliberate. Though not dramatic, Teie’s composition clearly engaged the feline, at least to our untrained, enthusiastic eyes and ears.

The cat study was not Snowdon’s first foray into musically bridging the animal/human gap. Some of his work at UW–Madison involved matching different types of human music — from Mozart to heavy metal — with primates. But he says some of the field’s earliest work with animal-specific communication may be credited to Patricia McConnell, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in canine and feline behavior. The idea that cats respond to certain music or that we emotionally connect with pets in unspoken ways comes as no surprise to her.

“[Snowdon’s] study is very significant,” McConnell says. “Every living being perceives the world as its reality, and what’s pleasant to us is not necessarily so for animals. To find sounds inherently soothing to cats or dogs in a veterinary setting, for example, could provide a lot of answers.”

Cat sitting by a Computer

Photo by Beth Skogen

This may be especially true for feral cats, cats in shelters and those that have been abused, Snowdon says. Anecdotal evidence from the researcher’s earlier study showed that the right music can have a calming emotional effect.

That brought to mind Ruthie, Anderson’s other cat — a 10-year-old gray rescue who’d experienced significant trauma as a kitten. On this day at least, Ruthie wanted no part of our experiment, rocketing from the room and up the stairs in a flurry of legs and tail. But Biddy stuck around for further tunes, specifically Teie’s “Cosmos’ Air.” The composition’s higher octave range seemed to draw her in, however tentatively, and she came closer to sniff the laptop and the researcher, perhaps sensing a familiar “voice” and kindred spirit.

I don’t know if my friend Michael ever played any of Teie’s music for Lexington. But another friend, Karren, had significant luck when she cued up several selections for MadiLynn, her 10-year-old tuxedo cat. MadiLynn came running across the room and listened intently and calmly to the composition. Karren says she has repeated her experiment several times, always with the same result.

In Blue Mounds, the results were inconclusive, according to Snowdon, who smiled as he applied more rigorous research standards. But for the rest of us it was clear that something had happened to Biddy, enough to perhaps bring a little hope to those who want to emotionally connect with their animals through music.

Michael Muckian is a contributing writer for Madison Magazine.

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