By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org

Not that it will quell the great debate between dog and cat lovers, but science has officially determined which of the two main domestic pets has an ear for classical music.

Two recent studies published in February looked at how cats and dogs responded to classical music. The first was conducted by the Scottish SPCA and the University of Glasgow, which compared the effect of silence and playing classical music for dogs in a kennel.

Kennels are loud and stressful environments for dogs, and that stress can manifest itself in accelerated heartbeat and defensive behavior like prolonged standing and barking. Researchers tried placing dogs in both a silent environment and one where classical music was playing for seven days. Results showed that dogs in both situations exhibited more relaxed behavior than in a kennel, but dogs listening to classical music displayed even fewer signs of stress and less variation in heart rate.

Interestingly, the calming effect of classical music was more pronounced in male dogs than female. However, the soothing benefits of this auditory stimulation might not be long-lasting as researchers wrote that “the calming effects of music are lost within the [seven days of] exposure.”

The Glasgow study reaffirms the findings of a 2012 study from Lori Kogan at Colorado State University. Kogan looked at a variety of musical stimuli for dogs and found that classical music was more relaxing for dogs than silence, and certainly more relaxing than heavy metal, which seemed to have a “detrimental impact” on canine anxiety levels. Researchers for both studies suggested that classical music might offer an inexpensive way for veterinary offices or shelters to improve the mental health of dogs they care for, and a 2002 study on the topic by Deborah Wells has inspired specially tailored music CDs for this purpose.

If there is growing evidence that dogs are calmed by classical music, another recent study shows that cats (as they are with most things) are nonplussed by having a little Mozart in the background. But researchers believe there is a very good reason for that: classical music was not written for cats.

Charles Snowden and Megan Savage of University of Wisconsin and David Teie of University of Maryland published a study in Applied Animal Behaviour Science that found cats prefer “species-appropriate music” over classical music. Based on previous studies that looked at music’s effect on everything from elephants and horses to chimpanzees and gibbons, the researchers theorized that animals respond best to music that shares the frequency range and tempos of their unique animal communications.

With that in mind, researchers in the study set out to compose music samples specifically for cats that used tones in the vocal range of a happy or friendly cat and a rhythmic pulse that felines would find pleasing. In one case, a pulse of 1380 beats per minute was meant to relate to purring, and in another a pulse of 250 beats per minute was used to relate to suckling.

Cozmo's Air
Rusty's Ballad
Cat music samples
from David Teie

Just like a Chopin piano prelude is more likely to be considered “relaxing” than a dissonant, serial work by Schoenberg, researchers asserted that the characteristics of the music beyond a broad “classical” label must be considered for the cat music. Therefore the cat music avoids staccato, irregular sounds that might resemble threatening vocalizations. Because the experiment involved volunteer cat owners playing the music in their homes, the music composed for cats also added a few musical elements for the cat owners that the cats were likely to ignore.

The selections of human music were Gabriel Fauré’s Elegie and Bach’s Air on a G String, both of which have a tempo close to resting human heart rate (66 and 56 bpm, respectively) and a frequency range similar to our natural vocal range.

After trials playing both human and cat music for 47 domestic cats, researchers wrote that the trials showed “cats prefer species-appropriate music over music that is composed for humans.”

So what can we learn from these two studies? If you happen to have some Beethoven playing in the house, your dog is likely to also enjoy it. But should you want your cat to jam out to some background music, you’re going to have to rearrange your life and cater specifically to Fluffy. Fortunately though, if you are a cat owner (like the author), you are probably already used to this.