A few weeks ago, Fka twigs, an English singer-songwriter, went viral on Twitter because cats were weirdly entranced by her music.
I’ve never listened to Fka twigs’ music before. Intrigued, I gave a few of her songs a listen, paying close attention to “Two Weeks” and “Cellophane,” which Twitter cats particularly liked.
Here is a short summary of some defining characteristics (disclaimer: I am not a music expert so excuse my basic, if not incorrect, terminology). “Two Weeks” intertwines hollow drumming with an array of electronic beats. Fka twigs has a high-pitched, breathy voice (she is apparently a soprano) that emphasizes “f,” “s,” and “h” consonants. She also mixes distinct syllable separation with unintelligible crooning. While dancers move fluidly out of sync in the background of a gold-toned set, Fka twigs is seated in the chair, moving her arms slowly as if she’s constrained to a narrow, invisible box.
Fka twigs employs the same method of extending notes into high-pitched undulations, while maintaining her breathy singing in “Cellophane.” In some parts of the song, she sheds her more vulnerable tones and asserts a deeper, fuller voice. Watching the music video is like watching a dream that transitions from a graceful pole dancing routine to a dizzying tumbling fall to shivering in a muddy crater.
I can see why Twitter cats are so taken by Fka twigs. Raw, intense emotion when she sings? Check. Thoughtful and detailed music videos? Check. Enigmatic talent and creativity? Check.
Scientifically, though, what makes cats attracted to certain sounds and Fka twigs’ music?
A study published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery investigated the effects of music on stress, finding that cats listening to cat-specific music in veterinary clinics experienced lower cat stress and mean handling scale scores. This meant that cats were less anxious and easier to handle in a clinical setting.
But what is cat-specific music? Did Spotify get something right with their pet-specific playlists, composed of smooth tones and nature ambience? A study published in the Applied Animal Behaviour Science journal counters the assumption that our favorite songs, with human speech frequencies and tempos, can effectively influence animals. Just because classical music helps us calm down and focus does not necessarily mean it will have the same effect on animals.
Researchers also found that cats preferred “ecologically relevant” music over human music. Ecologically relevant, cat-specific music had higher pitch, pulse rates similar to purring or suckling rates, and sliding notes. This specifically composed cat music had frequencies that complemented cat frequencies better, with tempos, or paces, that were similar to their range of communication and sounds.
Now that researchers are having a better sense of what cats prefer to hear, perhaps this can lead to collaboration between animal behaviorists and musicians in composing music for cats. Researchers are hopeful that they will see positive results when cat music is applied to stressful environments, such as shelters, veterinary clinics, or in situations like separation anxiety.
Many cat owners also report that their felines love watching television or videos on tech screens. Several sites break down this phenomenon, saying cats are somewhat nearsighted and color blind, but can quickly process visual information. I have not been able to find any study that experimentally explores this, but it does seem that screen-watching is a common trend amongst cats.
There must be something about Fka twigs’ music, whether it is her color aesthetic, movement, or singing, that is particularly appealing to cats. While we cannot say Fka twigs’ music is “ecologically relevant” to cats, it’s still interesting to contemplate how certain artists unintentionally affect animals. Now that the Twittersphere has spoken with a plethora of Fka twigs-cat videos, maybe animal researchers should investigate Fka twigs’ artistry from a cat’s perspective.
Sources: Mellow that meow? Researchers say this special music can help nervous cats chillax at the vets’ office (Boston Globe), Effects of music on behavior and physiological stress response of domestic cats in a veterinary clinic (Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery), The Sacred and Profane Genius of Fka twigs (Pitchfork), Biology Stack Exchange, What your pets really see on TV (Stuff), Cats prefer species-appropriate music (Applied Animal Behaviour Science), Here’s What Music Specially Composed for Your Cat Sounds Like (Smithsonian Magazine)