So cats in general seem to like music. Why? For that matter, why do humans like music? No one knows the complete answer; it’s somewhat of a mystery. Are there similarities in how cats and humans listen to and appreciate music? We can reasonably speculate that there are, but who really, fully understands the nuanced aesthetic sensibilities of the feline mind?
This article asks far more questions than it answers, but often the questions are at least as interesting, fun, and thought-provoking as the answers.
Why Is Music Appealing to Humans and Other Creatures?
Many species respond to sounds in similar ways: We become alert, wary, frightened, and/or ready to flee when we hear a sudden, loud, unfamiliar noise. We are soothed by steady sounds such as gentle rain or a light breeze wafting through the trees. We become accustomed to, and look forward to the voices of our human and nonhuman friends.
Before we’re born, we hear the rhythm of heartbeats and perhaps sense repeating patterns such as walking. We’re soon exposed to the sounds of nature, such as birds singing and crickets chirping, as well as the cadences of human voices, not to mention feline meows and purrs.
Composers use our common experiences with and responses to sounds when they write music. A cymbal crash stimulates the senses, a softly-sung ballad invites contemplation, a repeating mantra may be hypnotic, and rises and falls in volume create a sensation of tension and resolution. It’s easy to correlate these aspects of music with sounds we hear in day-to-day life, and to see how both cats and humans could react similarly to them. That’s why the shelter plays Mozart but not the Rolling Stones. And even some Mozart pieces might generate more anxiety than peacefulness.
So, through a combination of hard-wiring and experiences that start early in life, cats, humans, and other species are primed to respond to sounds. In fact, this ability may be crucial to survival. When we’re in reasonably safe circumstances, however, we can use our natural sensitivity to sounds in a pleasing way, as amusement or a mood-changer. This is music.
Cats’ Superior Hearing and Other Senses
Imagine having ears that had the range and sensitivity of those of a cat. Imagine having whiskers that could detect the slightest air movement. Imagine being able to sense subtle vibrations, or perhaps changes in the electromagnetic field. How could you not be affected by various sounds, harmonies, and rhythms?
Cats, with their finely-tuned receptors, may be primed to be music fans. But knowing cats, they might be picky about which music they like.
Do Cats Form Lifelong Attachments to Favorite Music from Kittenhood?
Are cats moved in a special way by melodies they heard and enjoyed as kittens, much as our favorite songs from our high school years captivate us much later in life? If you regularly played Brahms’ Lullaby or “Love Me Tender” to your kitten, and she curled up next to the MP3 player, does it bring back kittenhood memories when she hears it years later?
While music may not hold sway over cats in the same manner as it does for humans, it's still possible that, similarly to humans, cats form their strongest, most durable bonds with music during their adolescence. Like humans, cats go through cognitive stages, and we know that experiences in the first several weeks of cats’ lives influence their attitudes and behaviors for the rest of their lives. So who knows, cats may have their own version of "oldies" that conjure up fond memories.
Can Cats Tell When Something’s Out of Tune?
Most non-musicians have a sense when a piece of music is “off,” even if they can’t identify the problem. It could be that cats, with their adept hearing, have similar perceptions. Just to be on the safe side, make sure your guitar is in tune and voice is on pitch before serenading kitty with your rendition of “Nashville Cats.”
Do Cats, Like People, Ever Get a Song Stuck in Their Heads?
There’s something about certain songs, or fragments of songs . . . They don’t leave. They get stuck in our brains and play over and over. In some cases, it’s because we’re enthralled with the song; in others, it’s because a composer wrote an advertising jingle that had too much staying power. Cats have good memories and occasionally get fixated on certain toys or household items. Could they ever be afflicted with “I can’t get this song out of my head” syndrome?
Might Cats Like the Music We Like Because They Pick Up on Our Happy Vibes?
That certainly could be the case sometimes. Cats seem to be quite astute at reading our minds, and it’s well-established that moods can be infectious. But probably cats, with their unique senses and preferences, have their own tastes, too.
Does the Cat Community have Favorite Songs?
Beauty is supposedly in the eye—or ears—of the beholder, but there must be a degree of commonality in our tastes because some songs become widely popular while others are quickly forgotten. Perhaps if it were possible to take a poll, cats would have their own “top ten” classics. The question is . . . what would they be?
Music Written Especially for Cats
Recently, scientists, musicians, and pet lovers have begun to collaborate on writing music specifically for nonhumans. One composer has written music especially for cats, based on factors such as cats’ hearing range, vocalizations, and sounds to which they’re exposed in the wild, as well as their feedback to samples of music. This is an exciting new way we can provide enrichment for our feline friends. In one aspect, it may be easier to write music for cats than for people: Cats will honestly let you know, one way or another, what they think of your composition.