Feline reactions to music are quite variable. Some cats react with fear and loathing while others appear to love certain types of music. Unfortunately, research into feline reactions to music is scarce, but there have been a couple of intriguing studies, as well as numerous amusing anecdotal reports.
Music Cats Like
Austrian scientists have found that cats appear to prefer instruments such as the oboe and deep bass, as well as male voice choirs. They made this discovery by filming cats as they listened to various types of music and observing whether they moved closer to or further away from the speakers. Overall, they found that cats prefer fast beats to slow beats, and deep tones to high-pitched notes.
Many people claim that their cats prefer the genre of music they themselves prefer, whereas others have experienced conflicts. One owner who regularly left her radio set to an easy listening station claimed that her Siamese cat changed it to hard rock every time she went out (how he did this was not specified). Perhaps he was eschewing the high-pitched sounds of easy-listening singers lamenting lost love in favour of the deeper tones and faster beats more often found in hard rock.
Feline Reactions to Music
Many cats have shown musical interest, particularly in the piano. A search of YouTube brings up a plethora of feline musicians, many of whom have selected the piano as their instrument of choice.
Composer Henri Sauguet’s cat Cody appeared to react with ecstatic joy to his playing Debussy on the piano, racing over to lick Sauguet’s hands. However, zoologist Desmond Morris speculates that rather than enjoying the music, Cody found certain notes similar to the sounds of a kitten in distress, and was seeking to comfort his owner. This explains why cats often run to and interfere with people who are playing certain musical notes, but not why some cats seem to enjoy banging away on the piano themselves.
Writer Theophile Gautier found that although his cat would listen attentively when he played the piano, she would become upset whenever the accompanying singer struck a high note, reaching out to cover the woman’s mouth with her paw. Drs. Bachrach and Morin replicated this finding in the 1930s when they found that high notes caused many cats to become agitated, while a fourth-octave E note induced sexual excitement in adult cats. Such findings support the theory that feline reactions to music occur because certain notes mimic natural feline language.
Feline Music Critics
Many cats find loud music upsetting, but this is true of other animals as well. A study in which mice were subjected to heavy metal music blasted around the clock to gauge music’s effects on learning had to be cut short when the mice killed one another. However, many cats are also averse to high-pitched instruments even when the music is not played loudly. One extreme case has been recorded of a cat that would actually go into convulsions in response to certain notes.
Some cats appear to have particularly extreme musical aversions. The Mini-Annals of Improbable Research (a free newsletter featuring strange research studies, inventions, and discoveries) outlines a case study of a cat that reacted hysterically to the theme music for Star Trek, showing signs of paranoia for some time even after the music had stopped.
Mood Music for Cats
Animal behaviourist Hermann Bubna-Littitz, after studying music’s effects on cats, created a song compilation called “Music for Cats and Friends” designed to calm anxious cats. The CD contains electronically synthesized variants of a number of popular tunes such as “Memories,” “Moonlight Walk,” and “Endless Time.”
There is also a CD available called “Relaxation Music for Dogs and Cats,” a synthesized environmental soundscape targeted toward the broader sound range perceptible to cats and dogs. A third offering is “Music for Cats…and People Too!” This species-defying compilation encompasses jazz, classical, natural-environmental, and ambient styles and makes use of a wide range of instruments.
More Research Is Required
Overall, it appears that with the exception of responses to high notes, feline reactions to music tend to be quite variable and idiosyncratic. Thus far there hasn’t been sufficient research conducted to draw definitive conclusions as to whether cats enjoy some types of music or simply react instinctively to certain notes and beats. Hopefully someone within the scientific community will pursue this amusing area of inquiry in the future.
For more articles on the way cats think and the reasons they do the things they do, visit the main Cat Psychology, Communication, and Behaviour page. For a full list of cat articles, see the main Cats page.
- “Cat Behaviour (2).” (7 November 1998). Mini-Annals of Improbable Research (Mini-Air), BUBL.ac.uk.
- CatsandKittens.com. (2008). “Cats: Does Music Mellow Them?”
- CatsInternational.org. (2007). “Musical Cats.”
- Clare C. (n.d.). “Cool Cats Have Natural Rhythm.” Sunday Times, PetsandMusic.com.
- Morris, D. (1987). Catlore. London, UK: Jonathan Cape Ltd.