Miss Cuddlywumps weighs the evidence on cats’ ability to appreciate music
Humans have wondered various things about cats ever since humans and cats first met. One thing humans have wondered about us is whether we appreciate music. The answer to that question is quite simple:
Maybe. Under certain circumstances. If you play the correct kind.
We (She of Little Talent and I) got to thinking about this question after two recent studies about cats and music came to our attention. The modern studies are interesting, but naturally we wondered what theories might have dominated the exciting realm of music-loving cats a century (or so) ago. We summarize our findings below.
First, the modern
One study from the University of Wisconsin–Madison found that cats ignore human music and tend to prefer “cat music.” The cat music was composed by David Teie to be played at a pitch and tempo intended to be appealing to cats. If you have no idea what that means, go to musicforcats.com and listen to the samples (the full-length tunes are also available for purchase if you want to try them out on your cat).
The researchers visited the homes of various cats and played two samples of classical music and two cat songs, noting the cats’ behavior. They encountered the usual challenges in any attempt to study cats (“Some of them needed to wake up and pay attention…”) but did find that the cats reacted more positively to the cat music.
A cat listening to
music during surgery.
Credit: Margaret Melling,
Editor, Journal of Feline
Medicine and Surgery.
The second study involved female cats under anesthesia for spay surgery. The cats were fitted with headphones and listened to two minutes each of Barber’s Adagio for Strings (op. 11), Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” and AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck,” all while vets monitored their respiratory rate and pupil diameter to track how deeply anesthetized they were. The cats were most relaxed during the adagio and seemed more stressed during the AC/DC number. Reactions to Natalie Imbruglia were somewhere in between.
None of that is surprising, but the results suggest that perhaps playing relaxing music for cats during surgery could reduce the amount of anesthesia needed. It doesn’t tell us, though, what musical genre cats would prefer when awake.
Now, the historical
As proof that humans have long been intrigued by cats’ musical preferences, we dug up a few pertinent articles from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
From The American Naturalist, February 1890
The author of this report provided several stories of cats who responded to music. There was the cat who would respond to anyone who whistled a “plaintive air” by jumping into their lap to examine their mouth. The cat’s owner believed that the cat thought the whistler was in pain “and thus endeavors to express her sympathy.”
Other cats were known to respond to whistling, some with apparent pleasure, and some with uneasiness. We wonder if whistle-loving cats interpret the sounds as birds chirping or mice squealing. And perhaps the owners of whistle-averse cats just don’t whistle very well.
One English cat apparently loved piano music so much that she would sometimes “jump on to the keys and rub herself against the hands of the person playing.”
Another cat, this one from Washington, DC, enjoyed only soft, low piano music and would become agitated at livelier numbers, sometimes becoming so aggressive the player stopped out of fear of being scratched.
From The Roanoke Times, August 12, 1891
Here the writer claimed that cats were well known to enjoy the piano. Cats exposed to piano playing
show every sign of feline enjoyment, purring, blinking their eyes and agitating their claws. Usually, too, they will venture on the piano keys themselves when they are alone, to find out what kind of harmony they can extract from the marvelous instrument.
Sometimes, according to the writer, cats “are not born musicians, but can be educated.” Thus, a kitten who does not care for music can grow into a cat who loves it. One such cat who grew into a love of music preferred only the high notes and was somewhat afraid of bass notes.
(We must add that the same report claims that “cows cavort in gladsome ungainliness when they hear sweet strains.”)
Mark Twain holding
a kitten, 1907.
By Underwood &
via Wikimedia Commons.
From the Evening Star (Washington, DC), March 15, 1908
We’ll give the final word to Mark Twain, who said this about the musical sensibilities of three kittens he “rented” one summer:
Hardly any cats are affected by music; but these are—when I sing they go reverently away, showing how deeply they feel it.
Or perhaps that reveals less about cats than about Mr. Twain’s singing.
Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 15 March 1908. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1908-03-15/ed-1/seq-29/>
SAGE Publications. "Cats relax to the sound of music." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150330122530.htm
Stearns, Robert E. C. “Instances of the Effects of Musical Sounds on Animals (Continued).” The American Naturalist, vol. 24, no. 278 (Feb. 1890), pp. 123–30. Via JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2451437
The Roanoke times. (Roanoke, Va.), 12 Aug. 1891. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86071868/1891-08-12/ed-1/seq-5/>
University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Move over Mozart: Study shows cats prefer their own beat." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150310160037.htm