Credit: Darrow Montgomery

It was a blustery day in July when Pavla Teie thought her husband had finally lost it. David Teie walked into the living room of his Georgetown apartment taping a stethoscope to his forehead. Two microphones protruded from either side of his jaw, and a lattice of clear packing tape suspended five other microphones around his head.

“It was everywhere—the wires, the computer…tubes. It looked like, in your wildest nightmares you would not imagine this,” says Pavla. “So I laughed. But then he told me he was going outside like that.…At this point, it was not funny anymore. I thought as soon as he went outside, somebody would pick him up and take him to an asylum.”

Pavla begged David to keep his experiment indoors, but he couldn’t be persuaded. He needed to stand under the Whitehurst Freeway and record the cars whooshing above him and people chatting around him. Each of the microphones taped to his head would record the same noises from a slightly different location. And, if the experiment worked, Teie thought, all that information combined and played back through regular headphones would have a mind-blowing effect.

“It should be possible to make it sound almost like you are there,” he says. “It should be spooky.”

Spooky is something that current technology doesn’t do too well. According to Teie, today’s recordings don’t give your brain enough information to locate where a sound is coming from, and so music always seems a bit flat, even on state-of-the-art headphones. With his recording equipment, an audio book narrator could startle listeners by jumping from far away to very near, or a sultry singer could whisper sweet nothings into your ear, he says.

“Imagine Mariah Carey, right here—that could trigger more than fear,” Teie says.

For the 54-year-old Teie, sexing up pop music is just a small part of a much bigger project: a unified field theory of music, one that explains why songs have such a powerful emotional pull. In doing this, Teie believes he’s solved several musical and acoustical conundrums, including the purpose for all those folds in our ears, the way that the brain locates sound, and, perhaps, how to talk to animals.

There’s just one problem: Until recently, no one was listening. That’s because Teie’s not a professor; he doesn’t have a Ph.D or a lab or the stamp of approval of a big-name university. Teie is a simple cellist, albeit one who plays for the National Symphony Orchestra.

“It was frustrating—I had all these ideas in my head, and no one to tell them to,” he says.

What convinced Pavla and the world to take David’s ideas seriously? Monkey music.

“I may be just a schmo to you,” he says, “but, man, to monkeys I am Elvis.”

Every evening at around 6:30 p.m., Teie makes himself a coffee or tea, leans back in a black leather office chair, and goes into something of a trance.

“He calls it his coffee snooze,” says Pavla, 33. “I don’t know what kind of state he is in. I would think he is resting, but he says on top of the rest he gets out of it…somehow it’s very fruitful for his thinking process. I think it’s his favorite part of the day.”

It was during these snoozes that Teie (pronounced “tie”) had an epiphany: Every aspect of music has roots in sounds we heard in the womb and other sounds from the natural world. Composers simply recombine and play with tunes reminiscent of these sounds, and that affects us on a visceral level.

For example, he says, it’s no coincidence that music tends to be around the pace of the human pulse. “The fetus can hear at 20 weeks, so you…are going to be bombarded with this for five months, while your emotional centers are being formed,” says Teie.

Our mothers’ heartbeat is the loudest sound we hear in the womb, and it leaves an indelible impression on our ears and brains, just as they are beginning to take shape, he says. Every drum ever constructed, therefore, is an attempt to recapture our mother’s pulse, that triple-meter beat with instant emotional resonance.

Teie is also a cello instructor at the University of Maryland, and he learned via the school’s online library that the second-loudest sound in the fetus’ world is a mother’s breathing. And that sound in combination with the heartbeat, he posits, creates meter—the pattern of stressed and unstressed beats that underpins all music. Consider the national anthem, where every four beats repeat the same pattern: one strong, one weak, one medium strength, and a final weak beat, “OH say CAN you…” That rhythm scaffolds our national anthem as well as the anthems of France, the Philippines, and Russia, and its pervasiveness is no coincidence, says Teie. It stems from the sounds that inundate a fetus’s world: A mother’s inhalation plus a heartbeat, a heartbeat alone, an exhalation and heartbeat, and another heartbeat alone—ONE, two, THREE, four. In fact, says Teie, this pattern, typically called 4/4 or common time, is perhaps the most universal rhythmic structure.

“Common time is common to us all,” he says.

Pitch preferences, too, says Teie, get set in the womb. Music from India to Africa to Bali tends to hover around our mothers’ vocal range, around 200 to 800 hertz (cycles per second). If we instead preferred music that used the pitches we are most sensitive to, 2,000 to 4,000 hertz, orchestras would consist entirely of piccolos and violins.

“Once I pieced all that together, I realized that it’s all human-based: Every bit of our music is human music, for humans, by humans,” he says. “One of the ways I could test whether I was right…[would be] to make music for another species based on their vocabulary. Let’s find out what triggers their emotions, the kinds of sounds they respond to.”

A furry audience, however, would be hard to come by. Lifelong allergies have kept Teie from owning pets, though his wife does keep a horse in Maryland. So he did some online sleuthing and discovered a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin with a colony of cotton-top tamarins.

That professor, Charles Snowdon, was taking a break from grading papers when he got Teie’s e-mail outlining a universal theory of music. The scientist was more than a little dubious—especially when he got to the part where Teie proposed they write music for monkeys.

“It wasn’t something I dropped everything to get to right away,” Snowdon recalls.

After sitting on the e-mail for a semester, Snowdon sent Teie examples of monkey calls. What happened next amazed Snowdon: Teie listened to the calls and instantly recognized that one was a relaxed monkey monologue and the other was an active threat.

“It was astounding—he’d never met a tamarin before, but he could tell the emotional state the monkey was in just…through the musical analysis of the call,” says Snowdon.

One sunny afternoon not long ago, I visited Teie and asked him to show me how he made sense of those monkey calls. A handsome man with wavy silver hair, a model’s cheekbones, and a slightly upturned nose, Teie sat down at his desk and searched for the sound files. It took a while for him to find them in his jumble of ongoing projects, including an interactive string quartet, an ultrasonic mouse repellant, and songs he’s composed for cats and bats.

“Aha! Here are the little guys,” he said, clicking on the monkey calls. He played the first one, a monkey screeching. “Hear the regular intervals? The diatonic scale?” Teie sings, “Uh, uh, uh—it goes down in minor thirds. That’s just a normal conversation between two monkeys.” Teie played the second call—more monkey screeching. “Now, that’s completely different,” he said. “Here they are using harsh, irregular rhythms and dissonant note intervals. That’s an upset monkey.”

So it was on to Wisconsin, where Teie spent six hours sitting in a monkey cage, watching the animals, recording their calls, and thinking about what kind of music they might like to listen to.

What monkeys do not like is human music. For nearly two decades, researchers have played pop music, classical music, folk music, and lullabies for primates, and time and again our closest relatives have shown that they simply prefer silence—for example, choosing to spend time in a quiet maze instead of one blasting Mozart.

Such research has led many scientists to posit that music is a uniquely human indulgence.

“Music is not something that animals are interested in,” says Joshua McDermott of New York University. “It’s only going to obscure sounds that are meaningful to them, like the sound of an approaching predator or the call of a nearby monkey.”

Teie disagrees. Music, he says, is something all of God’s creatures can groove to, but it first must harness the sounds that they naturally find stirring.

“You have to get outside of human perception and capability in order to connect in their language,” he says.

After his time with the tamarins in Wisconsin, Teie returned to D.C. and read up on monkey hearing, communication, and habitat. He’d set his alarm for 4 a.m.—stealing a few hours before his two children woke—and slow down monkey calls, listening for their musical elements.

Confirming his initial hunch, he found that relaxed tamarins tend to use notes in the diatonic scale—which would sound melodious to ancient Chinese court musicians as well as any modern blues guitarist. He also found that calm calls used high, pure notes, like a flute, but threatening sounds tended to be low, harsh, and dissonant. That observation dovetailed with research Teie found showing that the amygdala, a structure in monkey and human brain stems, responds strongly to dissonance. Curiously, it sends our heart racing when we hear the harsh-sounding intervals that 20th century composers are known for.

“Why should the amgydala care about dissonance? It’s not as if Arnold Schoenberg was running around in tents 30,000 years ago, killing people,” Teie says.

Teie also found some important differences in the musical vocabulary of monkeys and humans. Though monkeys develop to the beat of their mothers’ hearts, that beat is up to seven times faster than our own. And monkey voices tend to be about three octaves higher than ours. Monkeys may scorn our music, says Teie, because it’s much too low and slow. To a tamarin, Lady Gaga sounds like Barry White.

With this in mind, Teie set out to compose monkey music in his spare time between cello lessons and orchestra rehearsals. He created two types of songs. One was meant to be monkey dance music—exciting and fast paced. The other was a lullaby, echoing the coos that monkey mothers made to their babies. (Unlike our soothing noises, which descend in pitch, tamarins comfort one another with rising tones.)

For the lullaby, Teie played glissandos on his cello and ratcheted them up three octaves. He then layered three lines atop one another, using ear-pleasing intervals like thirds and fifths. For the monkey dance music, he created a drumbeat by saying “ch ch ch,” sped that up seven times, and played dissonant intervals like tritones and sevenths.

Teie put the finishing touches on his tamarin songs four months after returning from Wisconsin. He wrote two songs to calm the monkeys and two to get them moving. He sent them to Snowdon, who had his lab assistants play the music for the monkeys and record how the animals responded. (For comparison, they also played four compositions that humans find relaxing or exciting: chillers Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Nine Inch Nails’ “The Fragile”; energizers Metallica’s “Of Wolf and Man” and Tool’s “The Grudge,”)

Teie was impatient to hear how the monkeys were responding. He called Snowdon repeatedly, but the rigorous design of the experiment meant that neither the scientist nor the composer could see the results until they were all in.

“I wasn’t able to do any tweaking midway through the experiment,” recalls Teie. “In music, that is something we are able to do, turn it up a little, make little adjustments based on how people are responding. It was pretty much a blind shot once the testing started.”

Despite this handicap, Teie’s compositions had exactly the effect he’d hoped for. When the lab assistants played the exciting monkey music, the tamarins responded by scuttling around their cage, shaking their head, and scent marking (that is, peeing.) When the tamarins heard the monkey lullabies—composed of whistle-like notes that are pretty terrible-sounding to human listeners—they relaxed. The exciting or relaxing human music, in contrast, had little effect on the furry audience.

In September, when the prestigious journal Biology Letters published Snowdon and Teie’s findings, the two became instant celebrities. Requests for interviews poured in. Snowdon explained the findings to about 40 reporters, including ones from U.S. News & World Report, Wired, and Scientific American. In 30 years of studying primate communication, the scientist had never had this kind of response to his work, he says.

Teie, who was in Prague at the time, handled much of the international press.

“He was sitting there in my parents’ living room and he had, like, three different phones, and he was online and everybody wanted an interview,” Pavla Teie recalls.

Teie was no longer a cellist with a crazy theory.

“One of the things he always longed for is being legitimate,” says Pavla. “This year was a breakthrough…and I am sure in the future there will be more successes like this one. It changed a lot. It gave him a lot more engine, I would say.”

While doing interviews on National Public Radio has been fun, says Teie, what really matters is the music.

“For me, the bottom line…is we can now contact and understand and actually expressively communicate with a species we just couldn’t before. And it’s authentic…we are actually listening to and understanding and communicating in their language.”

Though she’s a little skeptical of Teie’s Dr. Doolittle aspirations, Emily Egan, a zookeeper at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colo., is trying out Teie’s monkey music with the zoo’s pygmy marmosets and golden lion tamarins. Though Teie wrote his music for cotton-top tamarins, Egan thinks that her monkeys will find it interesting as well, since they are similar to cotton-tops in size, heart rate, and fetal development. Certainly, she says, it will be better than the classic rock that many zookeepers play for animals.

“As a keeper or anyone who works with captive animals, you are always looking to improve their lives in captivity,” she says. “There’s a lot of monotony for them.”

Keeping primates entertained, she notes, is not just nice—it’s required under the federal Animal Welfare Act of 1985. By playing Teie’s monkey music, Egan aims to avoid the repetitive and destructive behavior that bored monkeys tend to engage in.

Teie’s work also piqued the interest of Heidi Hellmuth, the curator of enrichment and training at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

“I just thought [the study] was fascinating,” she says. “[Teie] has devoted so much time to this. He knows so much about tamarin communications and vocalizations and what have you. To take his gift and his artistry and be willing to apply it to something like this, it’s just awesome.”

The golden lion tamarins at the National Zoo, however, will not be hearing Teie’s songs for a while. The zookeepers there are going to wait for Teie to compose music specifically for that species, says Hellmuth. Hopefully, she adds, he’ll write music for other animals as well. To that end the National Zoo and Teie are hammering out the details of the “Species Specific Music Project,” which will raise funds for Teie’s compositions and distribute them free to zookeepers around the world.

“I am really excited about it, and I hope it does take off,” says Hellmuth. “I think it would be a good resource for the animal care community worldwide.”

Though this project won’t be a money-making venture, Teie hopes his compositions for domestic animals will eventually bring in some cash. Just this summer, he launched MusicForCats.com, a Web site where people can download cat songs for $1.99 each.

As with his monkey music, Teie extensively researched cat hearing and development, made educated guesses about the kinds of natural sounds they would find interesting, and worked those sounds into musical compositions. Unlike monkey brains, cat brains are still in early stages of development after the animal is born, says Teie, and so a formative noise for them is the rhythmic sound of suckling, rather than the mother’s heartbeat. Their purr sets a rapid-fire tempo of 23 beats per second. And their hearing range extends high into ultrasonic frequencies—much higher than their meows. That’s gives them the ability to hear mice, who sing like canaries at frequencies much higher than humans can hear.

“[Cat] hearing is so high so they can listen to mousey troubadours singing to mousey troubadees,” says Teie.

By writing songs that are similar to, but not exactly like, the songs of mice, Teie hopes to create “auditory catnip.”

“The cat won’t think the mouse is going to jump out of the speaker but, ‘I am kind of tickled by that. I don’t know what it is, but it makes me want to jump up and go,’” says Teie.

Martin, a solid black kitten who lives in Adams Morgan with my friend Matthew Malamud, seems to disagree. A few weeks ago, I visited Martin and played “Spook’s Ditty”—a cat song by Teie that features very fast harp arpeggios overlaid with shrill chirping. It sent my pulse racing, but Martin merely licked his foot and yawned. I played “Cosmo’s Air,” a slower song with ethereal strings, purring, and something that sounds like an industrial fan. Malamud and I felt sleepy, but Martin continued his grooming routine uninterrupted. Two tabby cats in a suburb outside Chicago, however, are huge fans of Teie’s kitty ditties, according to their owner Tara Finedore. Finedore found MusicForCats.com through a Facebook ad late one night.

“I played the sample song, and it made my cats come running from all directions in the apartment to see what was going on,” she says.

The cat music’s somewhat inconsistent track record, says Teie, may be because traditional speakers can’t emit the ultrasonic frequencies that cats would really be turned on by. To rectify that, he is designing a cat music player that would produce very high pitches and also play music intermittently throughout the day, entertaining cats while their owners are at work.

The cat music player, however, is going to have to wait until Teie finishes his current engineering project—creating a system of microphones that allow listeners to pinpoint a sound’s location. With current recording technology, you can’t tell how close or far away a singer is, and you can only roughly locate him or her on the horizontal plane, says Teie. That’s because scientists don’t know exactly how our ears pinpoint sound. However, after a few months of early-morning research, Teie thinks he’s found the answer.

“You are going to think I am either crazy or an egotistical madman, but I think I figured it out,” he says.

It has to do with the contours of the ears, which break up sound waves, and also the way that the bones of the head and the face pick up sound from the air and transmit it to the ear, he says. That realization was what prompted Teie to tape the microphones to his head that windy July day. Though it was too noisy to try the microphone outside, Teie bribed his children with candy, and had them run and jump around him. The experiment, says Teie, worked beautifully, and he’s now writing a patent for his invention.

Not everyone believes that the multiple-microphone gizmo will mark an explosive leap forward in audio technology. “Unless I’m missing something, I don’t get what he’s discovered that no one else knows,” says Greg Milner, a journalist and author of Perfecting Sound Forever.

Whatever the response from experts, the wackiness freshens life at the Teie residence. “Throughout the six years we have been together, every year he has a new project,” says Pavla. “It’s crazy, but it’s fascinating at the same time. He just gets so enthusiastic about something and then he will make any sacrifice and do anything that is possible in order to achieve it.”

Pavla adds that her husband doesn’t seem to need much outside encouragement, so deep-seated is his belief that he’s onto something big. He did, however, recently run his sound-location theory by Jagmeet Kanwal, a physiology and biophysics professor at Georgetown University. Teie’s theory, says Kanwal, is both novel and plausible.

“He thinks very much like a scientist, despite being a practicing musician,” says Kanwal. “I mentioned to him, ‘You have already done the research part of your dissertation; now all you need is the coursework.’”

But Teie doesn’t plan on pursuing a Ph.D. The wheels of science, he says, turn much too slowly. “In biology, they don’t give you the time of day if you use your imagination to construct a theory,” he says. “If you haven’t proven everything in incremental advances, you are just not in the club.”

However, Teie is increasingly getting invited to club meetings. He’s given lectures about music cognition at Georgetown, and in August he will give an invited talk at the International Conference on Music Perception & Cognition in Seattle. He’s requested extra time to explain his universal field theory of music to an audience of skeptical scientists, people who generally don’t believe in universal theories of anything. Finally he can explain ideas that have been bottled up in his head to an audience that will understand him.

“All the heavy hitters, all the guys I have been reading all these years…will all be there,” he says. “I look forward to this conference and going and representing musicians, as someone who has taken part in building this thing we are all investigating.”

More from WCP