Just recently, this past February, the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science published an article titled “Cats Prefer Species-Appropriate Music”. The authors of this article included Dr Charles Snowdon and Megan Savage both psychologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and David Teie, a classical musician and composer.
And just what is “Species-Appropriate” music? Snowdon describes it as music in the frequencies and at the tempos the animal naturally uses to communicate. He and his colleagues based their cat tempos on the rhythms of purring and suckling. And when the cat music was played, the cats paid attention, oriented to the sound and rubbed against the sound device.
On his website, David Teie explains “species-appropriate” music more generally. He explains that all mammals are born with a “template of sound” that is a set of emotionally induced sounds such as a scream of fright. These emotional vocalizations are evolutionary cues for survival and propagation. Tempos and other characteristics of these vocalizations as well as characteristics of their developmental environment (such as the suckling sounds) are used as the basis for a music geared to a specific species. Prior to exploring music for other animals, Teie had found that much human music is composed of such elements from the human experience.
Teie enlarges on some of the perceptual differences of animals. For example, he found cat vocalizations to be largely consistent across the species, where with dogs, he found noticeable differences between breeds. He found younger cats responded to cat music more than older cats and both tended to prefer calmer music.
Teie had experimented with music for tamarind monkeys before composing for cats and reports the same indifference to human music and preference for species specific music with one exception: the tamarinds appeared to calm down whenever they heard the heavy metal band Metallica.
Another study, this one at Emory University, confirmed and elaborated on Teie’s work.This study explored exposing animals to music of different cultures. They stressed that earlier studies had concentrated on Western music as representative of human music but the patterns and acoustics of Western music are pretty much the same across all of it. That could have something to do with animal indifference to it.
The chimps in the Emory study were found to prefer African and Indian music over silence. They noted that African and Indian music had a wide variety of strong to weak beats where Western music was characterized by strong regular beats. They speculated that the latter was intimidating to the chimps because chimpanzee dominance behavior includes creating strong regular beats by banging on objects, clapping and stomping. That would be sounds of developmental environment such as Teie described, but of the unsoothing variety.
It has been suggested that music pleasures certain areas of the brain and some of those areas are connected with motor activity. Thus dance becomes a pleasurable activity involving timing and coordination. Some but not all animals seem to share this “time keeping” inclination with humans and one theory suggests that this ability evolved separately in different species. And in some cases, keeping the beat can become “dancing”.
While the above research concentrates on animal enjoyment of music, animals can also find pain, stress, and other relief in sounds as noted elsewhere in this website. It is my experience that they know what frequencies will help them, whether the frequencies have an overtone of music, a uniform sound such as white noise, or are simply raw tone generator frequencies. Homeopaths treating humans will often use kinesiology testing to help determine the correct remedy. I find animals will stay to listen to a frequency that is helping them or leave if they find it unhelpful. They will adjust their body position to modulate volume. When I began to play an audio pain remedy for Pops, my cat with cancer, I would sometimes find him with his head pressed against the mp3 player. Later, I might find him near it but with his back turned to it. Sandra Hickman, the Audio Medic, observed a similar response with the dog Nana.
Whether for enrichment or for wellness, I have to say, I think we have only scratched the surface of all the benefits of using sound with animals.