David Teie’s idea to compose music for cats all started with Metallica.
In 1998, while playing cello in the San Francisco Symphony, Teie, a music professor at the University of Maryland and cellist for the National Symphony Orchestra, collaborated with the heavy metal band and performed with them in concert. During the shows, he was struck by an indescribable “cocktail of emotions” that the music triggered, and he wanted to know why.
This led Teie to become obsessed with cracking music’s code: What are its ingredients? And why does it elicit such visceral responses? To answer those questions, he conducted more than 5 years of research—some of it out of his house in Georgetown—to develop a universal theory of music.
This is what he came up with: All music is rooted in sounds we heard in the womb and shortly after we’re born while our brains are developing. Composers take those sounds and remix them into songs, which evoke neurological effects tied to our very first sensory experiences.
If that theory was right, he thought, he should be able to reproduce it. “Any good theory is testable,” he says of his thinking at the time. “So if I’m right about this, I should be able to write music for any other species.”
That’s where cats come in. Well first, it was monkeys. In 2008, using the building blocks of his theory, he composed music for tamarin monkeys that a research team at the University of Wisconsin tested. The researchers found that compared to human music, which they hardly seemed to notice, the tamarin monkeys had demonstrable responses to Teie’s music. It was speaking their language.
Then came the cats. In October of last year, after doing similar tests with the UW team (for example, cats were observed cuddling speakers), Teie launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a music for cats album. He sold the idea as a relaxation method for formerly abused cats, as well as simply a form of entertainment for both cat and owner. In a month, it raised more than $240,000 from 10,000 people. The original goal was $20,000.
“One day I’d like to calm caged whales and relax abused dogs, but first I need to create a sustainable business, one that sells animal music people will actually buy,” he wrote on the Kickstarter. “Cats seemed like the obvious choice.” He used instruments to re-create cats’ first auditory experiences: the suckling for their mother’s milk, purring, chirping birds, and more.
Teie was right. More than just funding the album’s initial March 2016 release, the success of his Kickstarter campaign caught the attention of Universal Music Group, one of the biggest labels in the world. It represents Kanye West, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, and now, David Teie and his music for cats.
Since Universal re-released Music for Cats in mid October, the album has landed at 33 in the UK Official Charts’ Top 40. More than 20,000 albums have been sold there, as well as in the US.
Next on Teie’s list? Music for dogs, a potentially more difficult code to crack. Because there are so many different species of dogs that all have different vocalization patterns, making a soundtrack that speaks to all of them is a tall order. But Teie is still going to try.
“At this point I’m downright scared of how complicated it’s going to be to make music for dogs.”