Music written for cats?

09 March 2015

If you've been alive for any length of time you've probably been exposed to the wonderful, moving phenomenon that we call music: Patterns of sounds pleasing to the human ear and effective upon the mind. Music is a complex enough phenomenon that people spend their entire lives studying it and its effects upon the human condition. The psychology, the neurology, the mathematics, the accoustics, the physics... or, like some, they are called to compose or perform music of their own to enrich the world around them. (Whether or not some styles of music can be said to enrich the world is not a debate I'll be getting into, thank you very much.) Then a research team consisting of a composer and two psychologists got the idea to study music as it applies to other forms of life, specifically cats. What forms of music, they asked themselves, would cats enjoy? The answer, as it turned out was that cats really don't seem to care a whole lot for human music, specifically human classical music. Beethoven and Bach leave them pretty cold as it happens. Part of this seems to do with how the feline auditory cortex and inner ear are wired; the vocalizations of cats use slightly different frequencies than human speech with different sorts of complexity. Purring is down around 22 Hz, which is nearly at the bottom of what a healthy human ear is capable of discerning under good conditions. There is a fair amount of overlap between the ranges of human and feline sounds, but cats are also known to generate sounds a good deal higher than the larnyxes of most humans are capable of.

What they discovered was that it's possible to compose music which is species-specific using notes which are most commonly found within the range of sounds that a given species makes. It is also possible to figure out the tempo that best describes the sounds a species uses to communicate to help arrange the music in a way that should be most pleasing to the creatures in question. They ran a series of experiments (the parameters are described in one of the articles, check 'em out) and discovered that cats do indeed show a preference for music written with them in mind. There are two clusters in the data correlating to positive responses to the music, one for younger cats and one for older cats, with middle-aged felines less likely to respond compared to the other test subjects.

Which brings me along to the website from which you can purchase some of this music. A couple of other people have written followup articles about this and keep describing the music as 'trippy' for some reason. I'm not quite certain where they're coming up with this characterization to be frank. If you listen to the sample clips on the website they're arranged into three general categories, Ditties, Ballads, and Airs. Listening to the three samples it seems pretty clear that they're based upon the definitions of the terms, and if one wasn't familiar with them then one could use what they heard as a sort of working definition, so that's out. Spook's Ditty is reminiscent of someone playing the harp at a fairly swift tempo, or arpeggios on a harpsichord. Cozmo's Air has as one might expect lots of purring noises, which would be familiar to cat lovers (or anyone who's ever fallen asleep with a cat) and chords on string instruments (cello and viola, I think) that aren't unusual from orchestral movie soundtracks, though in a rather lower octave than usually encountered. Rusty's Ballad has an unusual rhythm underlying the melody - running eighth or sixteenth notes but largo otherwise, which makes me scratch my head because I can't tell what sorts of notes are used. Some whole notes, to be sure, but otherwise... quarter notes? Half notes? The odd fermata? I'd really need to see the sheet music to make heads or tails out of it.

Okay, I'll concede a partial point with respect to Rusty's Ballad. "Trippy"? No. Strange? Yes.