Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Drumming Apes and Piano-playing Cats: Animal Music

July 22, 2011

Tinky at the piano, at home in Gloucester County VA. Photo courtesy of David L. Justis
---This post is dedicated to the memory of Carolyn May Greenwood, who loved music, and to Sarah Elizabeth Hogg, and Nancy and Skip Koonce, who sang for her.

In the mid- 2000’s, the archaeologist Steven Mithen published a book called The Singing Neanderthals, about the evolutionary origins of music. We all know that music may shift our emotional state. For me, it’s at Springsteen / E Street Band concerts that I become most joyously transformed by music. Mithen reviews the evidence for this music-emotion link, then explores a second key benefit: music may enhance social cooperation.

To our ancestors living in a harsh hunting-and-gathering world, groups whose individuals shared some kind of music (perhaps playing flutes made from animal bones or chanting and singing in deep caves) might have fared just that one evolutionary iota better. Indeed, Mithen’s argument for why Neanderthals had heightened musical sensitivities compared to our species-- not despite but because of the fact that Neanderthals weren’t as fiercely linguistic as we are—is provocative and sets the stage for looking even more widely at music in the natural world.

Our closest living relatives express themselves in musical ways. In captivity, the gorilla Michael (a sign-language-using confederate of the famous Koko) invented guitars for himself using various at-hand materials for the strings, and enjoyed listening to Pavarotti recordings. In the book Kanzi’s Primal Language, researchers Segerdahl et al. write: “The bonobos listen to music every night and enjoy the sound of musical instruments. Kanzi plays the drums and the xylophone, and Panbanisha the synthesizer and the harmonica. It might not satisfy a music teacher, but they enjoy it just as children enjoy creating sounds with musical instruments.”

In the wild, gibbons sing male-female duets, chimpanzees drum on trees and other surfaces, and gorillas too pound out rhythms, including on their own chests. Apes feel deep emotion and, being so group-oriented, benefit from social coordination, so perhaps Mithen’s framework fits here as well.

Questions about animal music sang in my head this week when I came upon an intriguing article by James Barron in The New York Times, “Noted Composer, Who Leapt into Atonality, Meows her Last” (July 19). A cat named Ketzel had one day in 1996 worked her way across the piano keys- starting at the treble and progressing in an innovate pattern to the bass-- belonging to the composer Morris Moshe Cotel, then of the Peabody Conservatory.

Cotel, impressed by what he heard, transcribed the notes. The resultant piece he described as an “exquisite atonal miniature,” and he entered it into a one-minute-music competition. The judges (who did not know they were considering a feline-composed piece) awarded the composition a special mention. After that, the piece was played in concert at the Peabody and also in Europe—and even once in New York, “with the composer in attendance.”

Ketzel may be uniquely cat-composer famous, but other musical cats exist. My friend here in Gloucester County, the writer Nuala C. Galbari (see especially her wonderful children’s book The Woods of Wicomico) lives with one. Nuala kindly shares a description of her cat Tinky’s musical proclivities:

On some days, I would play piano and place Tinky, then a kitten, beside me on the piano bench. Often, during these times, he would climb onto my knee and he seemed to enjoy the sounds of the keys and watched attentively as I played, sometimes turning around to look up at me, as a child might do. I thought this quite unusual, as most kittens or cats would become bored with such activities within less than a minute. After a few weeks of this ‘practice with Tinky’, I began to notice that he really enjoyed being around the piano. While he was on my knee one day, I lifted him up and placed his right paw on the keyboard, playing a few notes from Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. At first, he pulled his paw away, but after about a week of playing the same tune, he would purr, and let me place his paw on the keys.

After a few months, music had become a part of his daily life, along with wild runabouts up and down stairs, and other play. It wasn’t only the piano that interested him; I would settle him into his basket for the night, and sing to him, or play Mozart softly. He would curl up and purr loudly, and often sit close to the radio during the day. I listened to Minnesota Public Radio’s classical station – and Tinky seemed to have an affinity for the music.

As time passed, he grew into a very loving cat and he helped nurse me through a bad illness by placing his paw in my hand at night; when I would awaken, Tinky was always there, only leaving the bed to eat or to visit the litter box. More than that, he had begun to climb up on the piano stool and play a few notes on his own. Music, at first a method of play for him, had become a communicative tool. When Tinky wanted attention, he would play the piano; when he was hungry and his ‘hard stares’ were being ignored, he would play a few notes to get our attention. Sometimes, though, he just played for what appeared to be fun. Gradually, we began to applaud his playing. If, for example, Tinky hit two notes together, we would not applaud. However, if he played two or three ‘clean’ notes, then we would applaud loudly. Occasionally, he would play for friends, and they would also applaud. On several occasions, Tinky played up to six notes in an octave with his right paw. Following applause, he might then decide to play some lower notes with his left paw. No doubt, the little cat had somehow figured out that I played with both hands, and so he used both paws.

In 2005, I moved to Virginia and brought Tinky with me. Tinky is now the grand age of 18. He has witnessed the coming and going of many other felines of whom we have taken care, and although he remains the No. 1 cat, he is a great feline ambassador, when it comes to settling other animals in to the house, including birds and rabbits. Tinky takes everything in his stride. He now has a little arthritis in the back legs, but he still reaches up to the piano – when the mood takes him – and gives us and our friends concerts. When Tinky plays well, he now receives both applause and a little treat. It didn’t take the other cats long to figure this pattern out (few among us have ever said that felines lack intelligence). Up to five cats may now sit in various positions around the piano, waiting for Tinky to play. They know that if there is applause, a treat will follow, and they all receive treats.

Thus, the piano has become a communicative tool for Tinky and the other cats. I have little doubt that he loves music, and even though Tinky can only hear through one ear now, it has not diminished his desire to play or his apparent enjoyment at disrupting proceedings when we are conversing or watching a film with friends.

This little cat is, quite simply, inspired by music and he has learned to use his talents productively!

Do cats and other domestic animals, then, experience altered emotion and induce enhanced social cooperation via music? Sure, we have all seen “viral videos” of cats and birds “being musical,” and some scientists (e.g., Tecumseh Fitch) have tackled the origins of music in scientific journals, but maybe someone should research a book on animal music. What are the evolutionary benefits of animal music, and when do animals create or appreciate music for pure pleasure purposes? Instances of animal music must be legion, even beyond the better-known examples such as whale song and bird song. Consider this an invitation. Add your own knowledge or questions here!


  1. July 22, 2011 8:57 AM EDT
    My dear cat Mollie would always lay on the top of the piano when I practiced. She loved jazz more than anything. Sometimes she would sit up and move her head in a swaying motion to the music. What a special feline she was. You can't tell me that animals don't appreciate music!!!
    - Karen Euga
  2. July 22, 2011 10:21 AM EDT
    We once had a dog who sang when I played the recorder--she'd come sit by my chair and howl along, quite beautifully. She also learned to meow like a cat--a very specific cat, our black one-- when she wanted to come in. She did that so well that she fooled me for years. Now I"m wondering if she had what humans call a "good ear for music."
    - Mary Pratt
  3. July 22, 2011 3:50 PM EDT
    Our Siamese (my avatar) likes to play with the indoor wind chimes. She will get up in the window and paw just enough to make a pleasant tinkling sound. I never thought about a reason for the behavior. If there weren't a benefit for her, somehow, she wouldn't do it. If she wanted to kill the prey and bring it down, she could, but she doesn't. She seems to enjoy just making them tinkle lightly. Maybe she does enjoy the music.
    - Janelle Helling
  4. July 22, 2011 4:05 PM EDT
    Karen, how intriguing that Mollie had a favored genre! I wonder what it was about jazz? Mary, I'm quite interested in cross-species imitation as well as music appreciation- very cool. Janelle, do you have a piano in your home? A wind-chime-oriented cat may be a good piano candidate!
    - Barbara J. King
  5. July 23, 2011 11:05 AM EDT
    Barbara, Thank you so much for the dedication. I believe music gives meaning to all of life. We had a cat, Domino, who loved to walk up and down the piano keys. It was such a pleasure to meet you and your family.
    - Nancy and Skip Koonce
  6. July 23, 2011 11:50 AM EDT
    Yes to the piano question, but she doesn't like it. She runs away and meows almost painfully from rattling dishes in the kitchen, loading or unloading the dishwasher, or the dropping of a spoon. I assume she has really sensitive ears and the impact of piano hammers on strings is too intense. I have actively discouraged the animals from messing with musical instruments, though. It was troublesome to practice with a cat knocking the music down, with a cat in your lap or jumping on the keyboard, or a cat trying to pluck the strings of a banjo along with my hand. The banjo pawing I could definitely see as imitation behavior. Cats do have a killer set of fingerpicks built in! My interpretation was less that it was an interest in music than it was attention-seeking behavior. Not unlike the behavior of children and spouses when you are not paying attention to them. I don’t want animals or other people messing with or damaging musical instruments or music, so it’s always been off limits.
    - Janelle Helling
  7. July 23, 2011 11:51 AM EDT
    Well, my dear Dr. King,
    I remember meeting you with my dear friends David & Nuala.
    You speak of animals and their music and rhythm. My very first personal recollection is of one of my family pets, involved in such, rhythm that is, was that when I was a young lad ~ oh, I’d say twelve or so. One of my dearest feline pets for years was Sasha. A gorgeous, slim, elegant, light gray cat with a heart shaped face ~ whom I adopted as a stray ~ found as a kitten, abandoned on the side of the road (I lived in rural farm country).
    Once a year, our parish priest, dressed in his black clerical wardrobe and white collar, would do his rounds blessing the homes each year at Christmas time. It was always a fond, congenial visit ~ like that of a fond old favored relative. After the ceremony at the front door of placing the blessing over the lintel, the family encircling the door, and then the casting of Holy Water about the home and family members ~ Sasha was sure to jump into the spray of blessed water, too.
    Afterwards, it was customary to sit, offer refreshments, libations, (at times stay for dinner) and catch up on how everyone in the family was doing and, of course, the well-being of our family priest.
    As we sat about in the parlor, our parish priest in the prominent arm chair of honor in the room, and refreshments on the cocktail table, we were all deep in conversation, just chatting away, paying no mind to our surroundings ~ Well, that darn cat stealthily crept up in front of the priest. Sat down squarely in front of him. And Sasha just observed dark dressed man. After a few moments the priest announced: “ I don’t like cats.”
    It was then, that Sasha started doing summersaults, pirouettes, and a “catophony” (I like to make up fitting words ~ I believe you can make out the meaning) of moves that broke us all into laughter. Sasha did all but jump into his clerical lap! My Mother then ordered me to remove Sasha from the room, to place the Priest at ease.
    So then, not exactly music, but, a story of my dear cat Sasha, and her Rhythm! :)
    - André Du Mont
  8. July 23, 2011 12:20 PM EDT
    Nancy & Skip, thank you, I hope you will stay in touch regarding further Pittsburgh Zoo visits! Janelle, as one with sensitive ears (puzzlingly so to others), I might be a fit co-habitant with your cat. The question of attention-seeking versus attraction to music is a good one, though perhaps it needn't be either/or. Children who imitate probably do feel pleasure from the music, and many go on to develop a love for it. Probably with animals as with people it's highly individual. Andre, warm greetings- it's Barbara please- thank you for the enjoyable memory. No doubt the priest's pronouncement of cat-dislike was not comprehended by Sasha, but perhaps waves of distaste emerged from his body language, posture, and expression, comprehended indeed by Sasha. I do wonder what the sudden, well-timed rhythmic burst was all about! (from Sasha's perspective I mean)
    - Barbara J. King
  9. July 23, 2011 1:52 PM EDT
    One further tale of Tinky's musical intelligence is warranted (and I know I exceeded the word count before and thus could not include this tale). Further to your colleague's post on the blog, I fully understand the desire to prevent cats from ruining instruments. Tinky has, of course, left his claw marks on the rim of the keyboard, but we consider this small injury for the joy he gives us, when he chooses to play, as it can be corrected. I closed the piano top on one occasion, as I was working on some editorial and didn't want Tinky to interrupt my efforts. I heard him jump down from the nearby chair, then, after a few moments, I heard a twang emanating from the dining room. I have a small, replica 18th Century Octave Spinet that sits in its case on the floor. I had left the case open as I had been showing the instrument to some friends. This instrument is partially built; the bridge was placed in the incorrect position during construction, and it has not yet been corrected, therefore the keys do not work, save one. As I observed, Tinky placed his paws on several keys, only to discover that no sound emanated from the instrument. He then turned his attention to the strings (half of them in place) and it only took him about two minutes to discover that if he plucked the strings, he could make music. These actions proved that he was thinking the problem through -- and I believe his actions demonstrate a very high intelligence in the cat. I have eight other cats; none has ever shown the slightest interest in music or instruments. I believe Tinky's interest and musical intelligence are the result of his very early exposure to Mozart before he slept, and to the playing of classical music in general, during the day, plus his 'lessons' as a kitten. Yet, I tried the same routine with a new Siamese kitten, Henry, but to no effect. I believe Tinky a rather remarkable animal. Perhaps this demonstrates the 'Mozart Effect', which is believed to increase the IQ in children and adults.
    - Nuala Galbari
  10. July 23, 2011 9:36 PM EDT
    I think how an animal is raised makes ALL the difference, just as with children. It was a life-changing experience for me when I realized how true this was from raising my own cat Mickey in a very 1:1 close way with certain gestural signals between us. (That was years ago when I was younger and still learning.) One loss I've experienced with the change to cat-rescue work is that we have many cats, all loved and all individuals, but we can "work with" each one somewhat less. There are, of course, still happy cats, each loved, and fascinating to be with.
    - Barbara J. King
  11. July 24, 2011 4:20 AM EDT
    Maybe there’s a third possibility besides attention-seeking and musical motivation. How about simple curiosity, or wanting to be in the middle of whatever activity is going on? In my experience, examples of this would include jumping into the pile of clean clothes when I am folding laundry, batting balls around the pool table while we are trying to play 8-ball, standing in front of the tv or computer monitor and messing with the keyboard or telephone when I am engaged in those activities. There's no musical reward for those things, so I wonder if it is more of a "gotta be where the action is" sort of thing. Generally, they don't mess with the computer, telephone or pool table unless people are using them. I tend to think the majority of musical imitative behavior by animals fits this pattern.
    - Janelle Helling
  12. July 29, 2011 12:00 AM EDT
    A great post Barbara! I'm sorry it has taken me a week to read in full and post. I very much enjoyed this as it not only interesting, but brought back memories of my kitty Meeper Do! Music has always been a huge part of my life. In fact I am suspicious of those who don't like music or can't articulate what type they like, ect. In my opinion, music speaks to your soul, it doesn't say much about you if you can't hear it. That said, I would have music on constantly and I would hold Meep and dance about the place. He seemed to love it and would smile! He was also the only one who appreciated my singing, purring when I sang to him :) He had his own ipod playlist, meep tunes :) When I lost Meep in 2008, I stopped listening to music completely. It was our thing. When I started listening to music again, my new kitten Baby Do! I think was alittle freaked out by it and he wasn't much into the dancing lol! That was two years ago and although I didn't play it enough at home during those two years, I have been recently and he seems to really like it. When the music is on, his play seems faster. Maybe its in tune with the beat? ... I LOVE the story of Tinky! Pretty incredible, I hope she has video of his concerts! Knowing what I do about life and loss, I have to say, I bet Tinky was a pianist in a past life. And as most of us might after living in these current bodies, probably chose to return as the purer creature. ... Animals are fascinating and beautiful. Thank you for your blog and finding ways to let us explore them in different ways.
    - Kim Forwood
  13. July 29, 2011 9:48 AM EDT
    It's great that comments are still coming in on this post. Janelle, I think I agree that the majority of music-related behaviors by domestic animals may be imitative in the way you suggest- so if we consider Tinky playing notes at the piano entirely on his own without Nuala in that moment encouraging him, then it's a kind of imitation with recall memory of what happened before. Tiki Kim, I'm glad you and Baby Do! are beginning to enjoy music again. I like your observation of a different pace of play, with music on. I'm not a believer in past lives but that's the great thing about blogging, it's fun to hear a variety of perspectives.
    - Barbara J. King

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.