Why cats hate Mahler symphonies

My recent post 'Your cat is a music therapist' was well appreciated judging by site traffic. So here is a codicil which raises some interesting points about synaesthesia. Reportedly Alexander Scriabin, Jean Sibelius, Olivier Messiaen, György Ligeti and Franz Liszt were among the classical composers who experienced cross-over between sensory channels. The impact of narrowing sensory bandwidth as music moves from a live to a recorded environment, and then from analogue to lossy digital formats is little understood and little researched.But it may have important implications for classical music's attempts to reach a new audience, and, topically, it may be very relevant to the post-COVID experience of Zoom concerts and live music in socially distanced auditoriums.

I will discuss how what we see influences what we hear in a forthcoming post. Meanwhile here is an extract from Akif Pirinçci and Rolf Degen’s book Cat Sense which explains the synaesthetic impact of a Mahler symphony on a cat.

In cats... it seems that information can switch from one channel (hearing) to another processing track (sight), performing an action scientifically described as synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is the amalgamation of different sensory channels which usually function quite separately. Sounds are perceived as images, while smells are ‘felt’ as a gentle touch... Synaesthesia is frequently found in literature in the form of metaphorical descriptions of feelings that are difficult to define precisely. The poets of the Romantic period were particularly fond of synaesthesia; they also tended to like cats, and produced several immortal works of feline literature, in particular the delightful fairy tale of Puss in Boots and E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Philosophy of Life of Murr the Cat. The Romantics, consumed by a sense of unquenchable longing and using poetry to cast a spell of enchantment over everyday life, used the stylistic device of synaesthesia to reveal hidden connections and cross frontiers of meaning.

However, evolution can hardly have created synaesthetic nerve cells just so that the cat could reel intoxicated about the place in a state of poetic rapture. The task of such related perceptions is probably to give the cat more precise information about the outside world, presenting it to the mind’s eye as a complete and fully dimensional work of art. Cats are supposed to have astonishing abilities to find their way home unerringly over incredible distances. Perhaps they really do have a synaesthetic aural image of the sounds of home stored in the memory, and make their way towards that image step by step. One hardly likes to surmise what visions a cat may have on hearing a loud hiccup or even a symphony by Mahler.
Image is copyright free via Jooin. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).


Philip Amos said…
I look forward to your next post, Bob. I'm synaesthetic, and I have wondered if that accounts for the excessively assocative nature of my mind. Most synaesthetics polled say they like being so -- I am not one of them, and my associative mind can be a great blessing, leading to revelations, but also a curse that constantly sends the mind off on tangents and by-ways. It needs discipline. At the same time, people who know something of my involvement with music have on occasion expressed surprise that I listen to music with my eyes open. It is only that synaesthesia and associations together demand my mind be exposed to other sensations in order to grasp the whole. "...what we see influences what we hear", as you write. And so, I look forward to the coming post. Oh, yes, Mahler's symphonies. Expose a cat to the complete symphonies I suspect would induce a cat to leave home, perhaps appearing a touch rabid. I can think of one blogger whose obsession with Mahler sent him over the edge.
Unknown said…
Our late cat Murphy (died aged 20) loved Mahler and once sat just three feet from one of the speakers for the whole of Mahler 8, only moving after the last chord had resounded.
Pliable said…
Lovely story Unknown. Please forgive my headline: I've been reading too much Norman Lebrecht.

Recent popular posts

A street cat named Aleppo

Master musician who experienced the pain of genius

Wagner, Mahler and Shostakovich all sound like film music

Postcards from a forgotten concentration camp

The act of killing from 20,000 feet

The practice of engaged classical music

A tale of two new audiences

Benjamin Brittten's relationship with children

Simple gifts?

Nada Brahma - Sound is God