Inside the World's First Ambient Album for Cats

'Music for Cats' is based on the theory that animals resonate most with rhythms from the womb.

by Zoe Camp
28 October 2016, 9:16am

Photo by Peter Forster/ Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For the millions of cat owners scattered about the globe, life is a continuous sequence of small mysteries. Why do kitties perch on our chests with widened eyes while we sleep? What is it with the feline tendency to mewl and whine for a heaping can of tuna, only for the cat to turn up her nose and run out of the kitchen? How can a creature be smart enough to open doors and undergo toilet training, but lack the discernment to distinguish between a mouse and a laser pointer? And then there's the most frustratingly unknowable riddle of all: do cats listen to music?

That's where Dr. David Teie, our cat-less cat whisperer (he's allergic), comes in. An acclaimed soloist with the National Symphony Orchestra for over two decades, he currently teaches cello at the University of Maryland. When he's not grading papers or holding office hours, he attempts to decipher music's role in the animal kingdom, guided by a 13-year-old hypothesis he calls "the universal theory": the contention that animals, including humans, resonate most strongly with the rhythms they hear during early development, especially their mother's voice and her 4/4 heartbeat.

He successfully tested the hypothesis with humans, documenting the results in a 2013 book called Human Music. Then he moved on to our closest relatives: the monkeys. When a pair of cotton-top tamarins went wild for the prenatal-inspired compositions (one of which he called "Monkey Metal"), Professor Teie knew he'd tapped into Mother Nature's motherboard, so to speak—so he moved onto cats, composing and recording music tailor-suited for the picky, prudish beasts. Thanks to the support of cat lovers worldwide, Professor Teie was able to raise $250,000 via Kickstarter for the latest iteration of his research: a 40-minute collection of feline-friendly ambient compositions like "Cozmo's Air" and "Spook's Ditty," appropriately titled—wait for it—Music For Cats.

Though Teie first self-released it last year, Universal is set to take the fruits of his labors to mainstream consumers on November 4, marking a rare instance of a major label investing in a non-human market. The album's premise is simple: using man-made instruments like cellos and synths, Teie evokes the sonic staples of kittenhood (a mother cat's purrs, for instance, or chattering birds), transporting the non-human listener back to simpler times. When I played it for my cat Ella—an ornery, one-time barn cat who hisses more than she meows—I was amazed to hear her actually purring, accompanied by some blissful drooling. Sure, it's weird—and perhaps a touch decadent—but Music For Cats is far from a gimmick; an article published in Applied Animal Behavior Science found that felines are far more likely to engage with species-appropriate music than typical tunes.

Ultimately, Teie says his hope for the project is to prove music's worth as a force of nature, as timeless and universal as gravity or the moon's ever-changing phases. "One day I'd like to calm caged whales and relax abused dogs," he explained on the project's Kickstarter page last year. "But first I need to create a sustainable business, one that sells animal music people will actually buy." With the world's internet-enabled cat obsession showing little signs of fading, that dream may be very well within reach.

THUMP recently caught up with Professor Teie to discuss the genesis of Music for Cats and where he plans to go from here—including an LP geared at man's other best friend.

How did you get the idea for this project?

This really began as a test of theory of mine concerning how music affects the emotions. If my theory is right, I should be able to write music that is effective for another species. The first test was on cotton top tamarin monkeys, and that was successful. Since very few people have monkeys, the next species I decided to research and compose music for was cats.

You're a cellist, and as Music For Cats reveals, cats really like cello. What was it like to uncover a link between your preferred instrument and your scientific research?

It turned out to be very fortunate that the cello may be the most elastic and modifiable of all instruments. Then again, it is possible that without the hands-on knowledge of the variety of timbres available to the cellist, I would not have been able to make the deductions and connections that allowed me to fill in the theory of how music affects us. All of the reactions from all of the animals have been delightfully surprising to me.

What was the biggest challenge in composing the record?

I think it was the waiting for results [of the cat research]. I couldn't move on to the next phase until the test results were in. Then, after they were in, there was a long and time-consuming process to getting the results past the reviewers and published. Since journals will be less likely to accept a paper that has already had its info released to the public, we had to sit on the news for quite a long time.

What was your reaction when you found out the CD would be released by a major record label? What have people's reactions been so far?

You can see the reactions by reading the review on Amazon.UK or on the Kickstarter page. My reaction to the Universal record deal was more complicated. First there was the reaction of all artists toward record labels—wary distrust. Then there were the lengthy negotiations that cost a huge amount of money, paid out to lawyers. By the time the CD was released, my euphoria had been significantly mitigated.

When did you know that you were onto something huge? Was it the Kickstarter's runaway success, or something else?

It was when I realized that the appreciation of art is possible for other species. That realization was very quickly followed by a sense of responsibility. Since I am able to create valid enrichment for other species, and since I am the only one who is doing it—building the music for other species from the ground up—then I feel that it is my mission to do it as much as possible until my time here is over.

The dictum of E.M. Forster—"Only connect"—rings true to me. Knowing that I can create music that is able to enhance the connection between people and the animals they love makes me feel that it is my calling to create it.

Do you have any plans for future research or recording?

My goal, for all of this, is to create a species-specific music project that will provide enrichment for a broad range of captive species. As we humans take over more and more of the planet and ransack the place, ever more species are inviable in the wild and populations can only be maintained in captivity. We tend to stick them in a square cement room and feed them. I believe that the least we can do is to provide as much genuine enrichment as we can, since we took away their living space.

Before that I will be making music for horses—[which is] almost ready to go—and dogs. I am collaborating with Alexandra Horowitz at the Dog Cognition Lab at Columbia University on research for music for dogs.

I also hope to put out a version of the music for cats intended for streaming while owners are away from home. It will alternate five minutes of music with ten minutes of relative silence—with only a few sounds appearing through the pauses—in a "song" that lasts more than 3 hours. The cat owners would be able to loop the song and put it on as they leave, providing some comfort and enrichment for the times when they are away.