Madison Magazine: Can we emotionally connect with our pets? Some researchers say yes.

A friend of mine, also named Michael, is a longtime cat owner who frequently serenades his pets with classical music. Michael says his current cat, a big orange tabby named Lexington, is a particular fan of chamber music and shares his owner’s passion for Antonín Dvořák. If music does indeed soothe the beasts, savage or otherwise, how would Lexington and any other cat respond to music composed especially for them?

On a chilly spring afternoon earlier this year, several of us decided to find out. Our host was Scott Anderson, who lives above his exercise studio in Blue Mounds with two cats, Biddy and Ruthie. We ran our informal experiment under the guidance of Charles Snowdon, a University of Wisconsin–Madison professor emeritus and biological psychologist who has done significant work in this area.

Biddy, a 6-month-old, ginger-colored American shorthair kitten, padded inquisitively into the spacious downstairs level of the studio. Snowdon sat poised with a notebook and his laptop, ready to lead the unofficial experiment based on his earlier research that tested this thesis: Can music give us a common emotional language that effectively bridges communication gaps between cats and humans?

dr. taking notes next to a computer and a cat

Biddy with Charles Snowdon (Photo by Beth Skogen)

“Long, slow notes should effectively calm an agitated cat, while short bursts should stimulate activity,” Snowdon told us. “Past work in this area indicates that we can manipulate the animals’ emotional state by the types and sounds of music that we play.”

Snowdon, who is best known for his work with endangered primates, was first contacted about testing cats and music in 2007 by David Teie, a cellist with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. Although Teie had no science background, he was an accomplished performer and composer with an interest in creating music that addressed animals’ emotional needs. Snowdon had sung in choirs and choruses but had no specific musical background other than being what he calls “a good audience.” The pair chose cats because of the animals’ greater uniformity in size and more homogeneity in voice pitches compared to, say, dogs. Based on Snowdon’s research, Teie composed music he felt would mimic cat sounds within the animals’ hearing range, which is a full octave higher than humans. He also added a bass line to make the music more appealing to humans. The response from cat-lovers was nothing short of remarkable.

Excerpted from the full story by Michael Muckian available in the June issue of Madison Magazine.