Guest Post by Marc Silver of National Geographic's Pop Omnivore Blog
Like many of you--OK, millions of you--I'm a fan of Nora the Piano-Playing Cat, star of YouTube videos. Gray and sleek, she strokes the keys with grace and restraint. She duets with her piano-playing mistress. She appears to be, as one YouTube commenter says, the reincarnation of Meowzart, er, Mozart.
I was inspired to try to get my cat, Rosie, to tickle the 88s. I held her in my lap and took control of her paws. I made her play Chopsticks. She seemed to enjoy it. But has she practiced even one minute since then? Nope.
You have a wayward feline who refuses to practice, is the joking diagnosis of Nick Dodman, animal doctor. Dodman directs the Animal Behavior Clinic at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, and is a good person to explain why cats might play the piano. Hint: It's not because they like the sound of music.
Here are some points that speak to Nora's prowess and motivation.
1. Cats can be trained. People have the impression you can't train a cat, says Dodman. Cats can be taught to do quite sophisticated things, like turning a light on and off, opening the door to a cupboard, running through a complicated circuit of 10 exercises in order. Professional cat trainers have tools and tricks that can work for regular cat owners, too (see point #3).
2. Cats can learn by watching. Imitation learning has been demonstrated quite clearly in cats, says Dodman. In other words, monkey see/monkey do does not just apply to monkeys. In one study, cats were trained to press a lever to receive food. Other cats then watched the lever-pressing cats. The cats that observed the behavior learned it more quickly than the cats that had never seen such a thing in all their nine lives. So Nora the Piano-Playing Cat might well have seen her owner tickling the ivories. But why would she decide to imitate them?
3. Cats like rewards. Maybe Nora jumped up on the piano stool, as cats are wont to do. Maybe her paw accidentally hit a key. Maybe her owner said, Awww, Nora, and petted her, or gave her a kitty treat. You can teach cats to do almost anything if they're hungry and the food is delicious, says Dodman. A handheld device called a clicker can help. As its name indicates, it makes a clicking sound. That's how Dodman once taught a cat to sit. Here's what you do: Wait for the behavior to be expressed by chance--say, the cat happens to sit. Then click the clicker. Then open a cat of wet food--mmm, yummy. The cat will associate the click with the behavior and the reward.
5. Cats can learn to respond to short command words. Says Dodman: It's easier [for them] to understand monosyllabic words that end in a hard sound like a consonant--sharp command words. You don't want something to end in a vowel. Then there's no ending, just a trailing vowel. So perhaps Nora's owners use a piano command word, like Hit It or Note. But not Pianooooooo.
6. You could get a cat to repeatedly press piano keys. In the video, the person stops playing, nothing is happening; then the cat starts it up and plays a couple notes. It looks like a duet, says Dodman. Here's what probably happened: The owner used the cat-effective strategy of reward/no reward. In this case, the cat played a key. Nothing happened. At this point the cat might have just lost interest and wandered off. Or it might have thought, Hmmm, maybe I need to do it again to get the reward. So it hit another note, then another, and it received affection, petting, food--the whole gestalt.
7. There is a benefit to training a cat. The bond between pet owner and pet is strengthened. The owner thinks, My cat is very special. Says Dodman: [People] can't hide their feelings from the animal, and cats are good at picking up body language.
8. Playing the piano isn't the only trick a cat can learn. My cat, knowing I was going to be interviewing with you today, last night [learned to turn on] a radio on my kitchen counter, Dodman says. The cat, named Griswold (after the Chevy Chase character in the movie National Lampoon's Vacation), jumped on the counter, saw a flickering shadow, and hit the radio button. Griswold got attention for this act, so he did it again. But here's the thing: Griswold, says Dodman, is deaf as a post. So the motivation to repeat the action was clearly the desire to be loved. In a similar vein, Dodman once had a grad student who trained a cat to run across the bedroom, jump on a chair, and turn off the bedroom lights.
P.S. - Cats probably don't like music. Dodman believes that piano music would sound as harsh and dissonant to a cat's ears as Japanese opera would sound to European ears. Kind of like bonkbonkbonkbonk. He adds, I don't think cats can be trained to appreciate music.
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