Move over Mozart: Study shows cats prefer their own beat

March 10, 2015

MADISON, Wis. -- As more animal shelters, primate centers and zoos start to play music for their charges, it's still not clear whether and how human music affects animals.

Now, a study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that while cats ignore our music, they are highly responsive to "music" written especially for them. The study is online at Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

"We are not actually replicating cat sounds," says lead author Charles Snowdon, an emeritus professor of psychology. "We are trying to create music with a pitch and tempo that appeals to cats."

The first step in making cat music is "to evaluate music in the context of the animal's sensory system," he says. Cats, for example, vocalize one octave higher than people, "So it's vital to get the pitch right. Then we tried to create music that would have a tempo that was appealing to cats." One sample was based on the tempo of purring, the other on the sucking sound made during nursing.

In the tests, Snowdon and former UW undergraduate student (now a Ph.D. student at Binghamton University) Megan Savage brought a laptop and two speakers to the homes of 47 cats and played four sound samples: two from classical music, and two "cat songs" created by University of Maryland composer David Teie.

The music began after a period of silence, and the cat's behavior was noted. Purring, walking toward the speaker and rubbing against it were adjudged positive response, while hissing, arching the back and erecting the fur were negative.

The cats were significantly more positive toward cat music than classical music. They began the positive response after an average of 110 seconds, compared to 171 seconds for the human music. The slow responses reflected the situation, Snowdon says. "Some of them needed to wake up and pay attention to what was going on, and some were out of the room when we set up."

The cats showed almost the same number of aversive responses to each type of music.

The study follows a 2009 report by Snowdon and Teie, which showed that a monkey called the cotton-top tamarin responded emotionally to music composed specifically for them. That work led Snowdon and Teie to believe that "the same features that are effective in inducing and communicating emotional states in human music might also apply to other species." These features include pitch, tempo and timbre.

Studies of animals and human music have produced conflicting results, and one influential study supposedly proved that animals do not appreciate music.

Snowdon says the field has labored under mistaken premises. One is the frequency problem: Animals hear different ranges than we do. Researchers who played Mozart to rats in Japan proved that the animals were ignoring frequencies below 4,000 hertz, meaning that most human music is irrelevant to them.

The second misconception is that all classical music will be calming, when it may in fact be invigorating, angry or ominous.

Combined, these factors may eliminate any chance that the animals would respond as expected to the "music" under study. "The problem is a bit of both," says Snowdon. "They don't hear it, and it's not music to them."

With more people trying to "enrich" the lives of animals by playing music to them, Snowdon hopes the more sophisticated approach he and his colleagues take will help put some facts on the table.

"A reporter for National Public Radio is convinced his dog likes classical, so he puts on NPR all day," he says. "A guy from a rock station thought his dog liked heavy metal, so he put that on all day. There is a lot of silly stuff going on. We don't yet know, for most cases, what the effects of music are on animals."
-end-
--David Tenenbaum, 608-265-8549, djtenenb@wisc.edu

CONTACT: Charles Snowdon, snowdon@wisc.edu, 608-833-8295 (prefers email for first contact)

NOTE: A sound file to accompany this release is available at https://uwmadison.box.com/cat-music-2

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Related Behavior Articles from Brightsurf:

Variety in the migratory behavior of blackcaps
The birds have variable migration strategies.

Fishing for a theory of emergent behavior
Researchers at the University of Tsukuba quantified the collective action of small schools of fish using information theory.

How synaptic changes translate to behavior changes
Learning changes behavior by altering many connections between brain cells in a variety of ways all at the same time, according to a study of sea slugs recently published in JNeurosci.

I won't have what he's having: The brain and socially motivated behavior
Monkeys devalue rewards when they anticipate that another monkey will get them instead.

Unlocking animal behavior through motion
Using physics to study different types of animal motion, such as burrowing worms or flying flocks, can reveal how animals behave in different settings.

AI to help monitor behavior
Algorithms based on artificial intelligence do better at supporting educational and clinical decision-making, according to a new study.

Increasing opportunities for sustainable behavior
To mitigate climate change and safeguard ecosystems, we need to make drastic changes in our consumption and transport behaviors.

Predicting a protein's behavior from its appearance
Researchers at EPFL have developed a new way to predict a protein's interactions with other proteins and biomolecules, and its biochemical activity, merely by observing its surface.

Spirituality affects the behavior of mortgagers
According to Olga Miroshnichenko, a Sc.D in Economics, and a Professor at the Department of Economics and Finance, Tyumen State University, morals affect the thinking of mortgage payers and help them avoid past due payments.

Asking if behavior can be changed on climate crisis
One of the more complex problems facing social psychologists today is whether any intervention can move people to change their behavior about climate change and protecting the environment for the sake of future generations.

Read More: Behavior News and Behavior Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.