Feline reactions to music are quite variable, ranging from fear and loathing to indifference to love of certain musical genres. There hasn’t been much research conducted to examine feline musical preferences, but there have been a few interesting studies, as well as many 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).
Some cats have shown an interest in playing musical instruments, particularly the piano. Search YouTube and you’ll find plenty of feline musicians, many of whom have selected the piano as their instrument of choice.
Composer Henri Sauguet’s cat Cody reacted with what appeared to be ecstatic joy when he played 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 trying 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, discovering that high notes caused many cats to become agitated, while a fourth-octave E note induced sexual excitement in adult cats. These 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 all killed each other. Some cats are also averse to high-pitched instruments even when the music is not played loudly. In one extreme case a cat actually suffered convulsions in response to certain notes.
A few cats have had particularly extreme musical aversions. The Mini-Annals of Improbable Research (a free newsletter featuring strange research studies, inventions, and discoveries) summarizes a case study of a cat that reacted hysterically to the theme music for Star Trek and showed 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.
In 2015, Snowdon et al. created a compilation of music specifically designed for cats to support their research on species-appropriate music, which includes songs pitched to a frequency based on cat vocalizations rather than human speech and drum tempos that evoke feline purring and suckling. Cats reacted to this music by becoming excited, approaching the source of the sound, and rubbing their bodies against the speakers (cats rub against things to claim them by scent marking), whereas they showed no interest in classical music.
More research is required
With the exception of responses to high notes, feline reactions to music are quite variable and idiosyncratic. Thus far there hasn’t been enough 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 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.
- McDonald, F. (2018). “Scientists Have Created the Perfect Music for Cats.” ScienceAlert.com.
- Morris, D. (1987). Catlore. London, UK: Jonathan Cape Ltd.
- Snowdon, C.T., Teie, D., & Savage, M. (2015). “Cats Prefer Species-Appropriate Music.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 166, 106-111.