David Teie composes music for cats (and for monkeys, dogs, and horses). A cellist for more than two decades with the National Symphony Orchestra and an active composer and conductor of chamber and orchestral music, Teie is also a faculty member at the University of Maryland School of Music who has published path-breaking studies of the mammalian prenatal and infant foundations of music. David Teie believes that every species has an intuitive biological response to sounds based on their brain development and vocalizations. Teie’s research and compositions have broadened our understanding of the emotional impact of music, and of the relationship between music and brain development, and in the process altered our sense of the relationship between humans and other animal species. Here’s how Teie himself describes this research.
In 2003, amidst my career as a classical musician, I developed a universal theory of music. I set out to discover why humans have an emotional response to music and found that it’s tied to the sounds we heard when our brains are developing. For example, it’s because we heard our mother’s pulse in the womb that we like drums in our music; the sound intrigues us because it evokes heartbeats. It’s no coincidence that our mother’s resting heart rate is almost exactly the same pace as music we find relaxing…. If my ideas about the universal nature of music were correct, I figured I should be able to write songs that affect other species by taking into account the sounds they hear when their brains are developing. My first project was composing music for monkeys. Because of their high-pitched voices and fast pulse, I wrote songs at higher pitch and with a faster pace than human music. To test the music, I teamed up with University of Wisconsin psychology professor Charles Snowdon and played those two songs for cotton-top tamarins. It worked! They relaxed for the tranquil tunes and jumped around during the heavy metal music. The scientific community took notice and my theory was published by the Royal Society as well as Oxford University Press.
Teie subsequently studied how cats responded to music based on the sounds, pitches, and rhythms to which their brains are tuned developmentally. With a brain only a small fraction of the size at birth of what it will be at 10 weeks, felines establish their sense of music through the sounds heard after they’re born, such as suckling for milk or their mother’s purr or the chirping of birds. Teie’s music for cats uses natural vocalizations and matches them to a cat’s frequency range and highly sensitive auditory capabilities (cats use 25 percent of their brains to support hearing functions, compared to only 3 percent of the human brain). The cats in Teie’s study responded positively to the music composed for them, while remaining indifferent to human music. “The results were clear. For the first time in history, we’d created real animal music.” In 2009, the New York Times hailed Teie’s species-specific music for cats as the #1 idea of the year.
In 2015, Teie launched his Music for Cats Kickstarter, with the goal of raising $20,000 to support the costs of composing, recording, and packaging an album of music specifically created for cats. As he noted at the time, music-creation software and hardware was designed for human listeners. In order to produce the music, Teie needed to modify instruments and use extensive post-recording editing to create the cat-appropriate sounds. In some cases, the sounds were so fast and the frequencies so high that he needed to compose and record the music at 1/3 of the pace and then increase the playback speed, which required him to compose and record 3 minutes of music for every minute of music heard in the song.
Teie’s Kickstarter ended up raising $241,651 from 10,165 pledges, 12 times his initial goal! He released the album for download in March 2016, and as a reward for the singular nature of his achievement, he has recently signed an artist agreement with Universal Records, making his Music for Cats the first music for any species other than human to be available from a major record company.
In June, Teie launched a second Kickstarter Gold campaign, with the explicit aim of creating music that humans and cats care share and appreciate together. This Kickstarter has also already exceeded its funding goal, but deserves support from all cat lovers excited by David Teie’s fascinating and important work with interspecies connection and communication. A pledge of $15 gets you instant access to the digital version of the album as soon as it is released. A pledge of $1,000 gets you a song on the album named after your cat! Teie donates a portion of the proceeds to animals shelters and provides music for free to shelters and hospitals that do not practice declawing. Please click here if you would like to explore or donate to David Teie’s second Music for Cats (and People) Kickstarter. [NB: I have no financial interest in this project].
I actually like very much the first cat music album, and already enjoy listening to the songs with my cat, who is old, and who definitely enjoys and appreciates the music, since it sends him into a soporific state even more pleasingly deep than his customary plane of repose. But the Music for Cats projects deserve our interest and support for many reasons, not least because David Teie’s efforts are themselves revelations about the musical, rhythmic depth of our connection to and dependence on other creatures great and small, in the only world we will ever have and will ever know.