Nothing attracts a cat like a person with a cat allergy. How else to explain why, one August afternoon, a cat named Midnight sauntered past nearly a dozen people waving feathers and ribbons at a Georgetown cat cafe and parked himself at the feet of David Teie. Teie, who had taken prophylactic benadryl before venturing into Crumbs & Whiskers, didn’t notice. He was too focused on setting up a speaker and a video camera. Besides, he was there to play music for cats, not make friends with them.
Teie tapped his iPhone, triggering a cascade of high harp arpeggios and a melody he’d written reminiscent of birdsong. A tuxedo cat named Mitty turned toward the music. The feather and ribbon wavers paused, waiting to see if Mitty would approach the speaker. Alas, he turned away and began to give himself a bath.
A half-hour later, Teie left Crumbs & Whiskers deflated.
“If that had been my first test, I would have gone back to human music,” he said.
Back in 2008, Teie wrote two songs that would have been major hits on the cat-music Billboard charts, if there were such a thing. “Rusty’s Ballad” and “Cozmo’s Air” prompted positive responses from 77 percent of cats in a study published in February in Applied Animal Behaviour Science. That’s pretty impressive, considering that just 38 percent responded positively to classical masterpieces such as J.S. Bach’s “Air on the G String.”
“As far as I know, it’s the first study showing that cats respond to music at all,” says Nick Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Program at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. “It appears cats are responding to music if it’s properly designed and delivered in the cat idiom.”
Teie’s foray into cat music composition didn’t surprise his colleagues at the National Symphony Orchestra. An accomplished cellist, Teie began writing music for animals back in 2003 to demonstrate his universal theory of music: The idea that music taps directly into our emotional core by remixing the sounds that marinated our developing brains in the womb. It’s no coincidence, says Teie, that our mother’s resting pulse is about the same pace as music we find relaxing, and that our favorite instruments, like the violin, tend to hover around the range of her voice. That’s also true for other animals, but the particulars can change, Teie posited. For instance, with their high-pitched voices and fast pulse, monkeys are going to respond best to music that is quite a bit higher and faster than music for humans.
To test that theory, Teie teamed with University of Wisconsin psychology professor Charles Snowdon and tried out some of Teie’s monkey music on a colony of cotton-top tamarins. Amazingly, it worked: The monkeys relaxed to the more tranquil tunes Teie wrote for them, and they jumped around when researchers played Teie’s monkey “dance music,” according to a study published in Biology Letters in 2010.
“I realized I was really on to something when I started getting invited to major scientific conferences,” Teie recalls.
The cellist dreamed of filling out his universal theory of music by writing music for all kinds of animals, but he couldn’t keep doing it for free. Before Teie could serenade bored zoo elephants or calm stressed-out whales, he would need to write animal music that people might actually buy. Music for a common pet that we struggle to connect with. An animal we prize for its beauty but never truly manage to own. Music for cats.
After dashing off his first two cat tunes, Teie largely forgot about the project until, in February, the study was finally published and generated a flurry of attention. Teie realized he needed to write an EP’s worth of cat songs, about 40 minutes, so he could sell it online. The only problem: It had been seven years since Teie wrote his cat-music hits, and he was afraid he might have lost his touch.
The trip to the cat cafe to market-test a new tune was less than encouraging.
“I’m worried I might be a one-hit wonder,” Teie said.
As Teie and his family packed for a month’s vacation in Prague, he explained to his kids that he’d need to focus on his cat-music composing as if it were a 9-to-5 job. For four weeks, while his children played with their Czech cousins at the neighborhood pool, Teie cloistered himself in a reading room at the National Library of the Czech Republic, thinking about what he needed to do to cross the species divide. The trick, he says, is to use instruments both real and virtual to create approximations of cat sounds, and then create compositions that are pleasing and novel to the animals.
“If you play an actual purr, the cats will habituate to it,” Teie says. “What I’m trying to do is tickle their brains so they think, ‘I don’t know what that is, but it gets to me. It makes me feel good.’ ”
Teie sampled the sound of a snare drum and sped it up to the pace of a purr. That was good enough for his early music, but as he studied the waveforms of actual purrs, he realized that each beat was in fact two sounds, like a very quick heartbeat.
“I couldn’t hear it, but I knew cats could,” he says.
Teie then created a new instrument on his computer by contouring an organ sound to mimic the opening and closing of a cat’s vocal cords.
Layered on top of the musical purrs were sliding songs of kittens, who mew up into the ultrasonic range. He set up a makeshift recording studio in a metal shop and, on a borrowed violin, played kitten songs two notes at a time — the maximum number of notes he could play in a row on the unfamiliar instrument. Later, he stitched the fragments together and raised their pitch to the cat’s preferred listening range, about two octaves higher than most human music.
In Prague, he had his breakthrough.
“I realized that I could write music that would provide a shared emotional experience for cats and their humans,” he says. “I could write cat music that I’d also enjoy listening to.”
In his first-generation cat songs, Teie had included cello parts merely to make the music palatable to human ears. For his EP, he began writing cello melodies that interlocked with the tunes in the high cat-hearing range. The result: airy, calm music that might pass for a modern classical composition or a film score — if it weren’t for that insistent background purr.
While Teie was in Prague recording, his oldest son from a previous marriage, Andrew, was reaching out to America’s most famous cats. A communications strategist for Anomaly, a marketing firm with clients including Panera Bread and Converse, Andrew Teie had persuaded his bosses to market his father’s cat music — for free.
“All Andrew had to say was ‘Music for Cats,’ and I was like, ‘Sold!,’ ” says Anomaly founding partner Johnny Vulkan.
With Americans spending about $60 billion annually on their pets, cat music has the potential to be huge, Andrew adds. But since “Music for Cats” doesn’t have a budget for a traditional advertising campaign, it will have to rely on viral marketing — avenues such as Internet videos and memes.
“Luckily for us, cats already own the Internet,” Andrew says.
The “Music for Cats” marketing team began making calls.
“We reached out to the most famous Internet cats, the Orlando Blooms and the Brad Pitts of Internet cats, and they welcomed us,” Andrew says.
Well, sort of. The owner of Grumpy Cat, as you might expect, didn’t return their calls. But they did get enthusiastic responses from the owners of Nala, a Siamese-tabby mix with 2.3 million Instagram followers;Bacon, a Scottish fold from Australia; and other famous felines. All of the cats’ owners agreed to record videos of their animals responding to Teie’s music and share the footage — for free.
The “Music for Cats” EP, and its accompanying viral marketing campaign, is slated for release Oct. 25.
A week after returning from Prague, Teie went back to Crumbs & Whiskers to try out his new tunes.Once again, he set up the speaker and cued the music. Six pairs of ears immediately pivoted to take it in. A calico named Vegas sniffed around the speaker, but most of the other cats stayed put.
“They seem to be listening,” Teie said. “It’s kind of even better than if they were to all get up and investigate.”
Sitting cross-legged on a low couch, Teie and the cats took in the music together. We may never know exactly what the cats heard or what they thought of it, but the human-cat divide seemed to grow a little smaller with every violin melody and cello response.
When Teie stopped the music, a black cat stretched and wandered off.
“Thank you, folks,” Teie said. “The concert’s over.”
Sadie Dingfelder is a reporter for Express. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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