Meet the Man Who Makes Music for Cats

5 minute read

Cellist and musician David Teie, a soloist with America’s National Symphony Orchestra, has created the first ever album specifically for cats to listen to. TIME spoke to him about Music for Cats – and whether it actually works.

What made you decide to make music that isn’t for humans?

It first started when I was doing a concert with Metallica. There was a very strong emotional sense to the music, which didn’t seem to exist in nature – and that struck me. Later, I was putting together a lecture series on performing music in a way that can help people understand its structure and I realized how much music is built for the human scale.

I started questioning things, like ‘Why doesn’t a song last for a tenth of a second, or ten thousand years?’. The answer is because it’s made for humans by humans and for our timescale and the frequencies we hear – in the same way that we don’t paint in colors we can’t see.

That made me decide to examine each layer of music, to question each element of it and think about why each one affects human emotions. I then decided I would try and make music not for humans, by replacing some of the layers for humans with layers for animals instead.

If I had to choose the 15 greatest experiences of my life, I’m sure half would be in music and it’s also such a powerful communicative tool; people love their pets and consider them to be members of their family so the idea is that this album can be a form of enrichment for cats, as well as helping them communicate.

Why cats?

I first tested my theory on capuchin monkeys. I wrote music for them and researchers at the University of Wisconsin tried it out. It proved successful, so I decided to write for some of the animals that are most commonly around us.

I decided to do cats [because] they are very consistent across the breeds; if you write for one it will hopefully get through to the others.

What ‘layers’ did you use for the cat music?

One of things I thought about was how at birth, cats’ brains are only one eighth of the size they will be at ten weeks. Most of their brain development happens outside the womb, so I figured that a reward-related sound that all cats would have heard as their brains developed would work. I managed to recreate a sort of ‘shoop shoop’ swishing sound, representing the suckling for milk that they would have experienced at a very young age.

I also looked into recreating a purring sound. Like humans, cats purr when they are content and also when they are in pain – but not when they are by themselves, so it’s a sympathetic communication. I used instruments which made a purr-like sound, intended to communicate the same kind of sense of sympathetic understanding.

Did you use other musicians for the album?

The album is 80% me, but a couple of other players also contributed to it. They’ve mainly done the part of the music that is designed for humans. I decided to make my music work for both humans and cats as one of the main bits of feedback I received after my monkey music was that the people who did the research found it really irritating. So using the base clef, which registers too low for cats to hear, I’ve put another layer under the music, specifically for humans.

What has the reaction been from cats?

There was a testing of the cat music in Wisconsin, which went well. The researchers said the cats would nuzzle up next to the speaker, showing marking and ownership, as well as curl up nearby and purr. Apparently the majority them responded favourably – they enjoyed the music and were calmed by it.

One of the cats we used in our Kickstarter campaign was a famous cat called Cole – one half of the internet sensation that is Cole and Marmalade. Cole didn’t take any interest in the music at first, but later on became quite a big fan. I like the idea it can be an acquired taste and can grow on cats.

So, what’s next?

I’m hoping that one day there will be streaming version of the album available, so pet owners can leave it on when they’re away from home to make their cat feel calm.

Eventually, I’d like to bring a species-specific music project to captive species. As we reduce the number of species in the world by kind of ransacking the place, more and more of them have to be kept in captive situations – such as concrete square rooms in zoos. One of my long-term goals is to bring enrichment to a variety of mammals that are in captive situations.

The album is made up of five songs and we funded it on Kickstarter, which worked out very well. Universal Records put it out Thursday morning and they’re optimistic it will remain on the top of the charts for a while. I’m very happy to say that it looks like Music for Cats will be the first album in the top 40 that wasn’t made for humans.

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