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Personal Essays


A report from the world of cow singing in England, where cattle stampede to hear Johnny Rotten imitations.

I like to sing to cows. Unfortunately I live in a rather sheepy area of England, so my opportunities are limited. (Mutton and music don’t mix.) When, on a long country ramble, I do find a scattered red herd, my heart lifts and my mind races through old melodies learned in childhood: tunes with lilt and variation, guts and brio. Real music, in other words, not the pop chants of the day, though I do throw in a punk anthem now and then—“Anarchy in the U.K.” or “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A”—to shake things up.

It’s known in farming circles that cows like music. Farmers often keep a radio playing during milking because it is said to calm the animals down. A friend of mine has a garage abutting a cow pasture; when he practices with his band in there, or spins a CD to accompany our efforts over the billiards table, the herd comes as close as possible and attempts to put its collective nose through the window. (Intriguingly, when he practices his drums alone, they promptly retreat to the farthest corner of the field and stay there for days.)

Additionally, I had heard from a girl who grew up on a farm that cows will follow you if you sing. All this background knowledge, however, did not prepare me for the response I elicited when I first tried it. The herd, perhaps bored by the endless green expanse around them, had been inching curiously, if timidly, closer at the sight of me. But as I broke into song they surged exuberantly forward, a rumbling, quivering tide of beef, eyes alight with excitement. I simply repeated a la-la-la refrain from “Man in the Corner Shop” by the Jam; these cows had clearly missed the Mod resurgence of the early 80s, and with something like teen glee they began to follow me along the side of the wall.

(“If I Were A Rich Man” tops my repertoire, though in acknowledgement of my audience’s nationality I may follow it up by humming “Jerusalem” or “Land of Hope and Glory,” the tunes I associate most with English patriotism. Being an American, I don’t know—or ever expect to know—all the words to these songs, but neither does my audience. They seem to appreciate the gesture, though.)

A pair of English scholars and a child from the United States are pioneering the field of serenading cattle. In 2001, Adrian North and Liam MacKenzie of the University of Leicester subjected 1,000 Holstein Friesian cows to a variety of musical styles. From 5:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every day for nine weeks one herd listened to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.” They produced 0.73 liters more milk each than the herd that listened to the Beatles singing “Back in the U.S.S.R.” “Milk yields could be increased by three percent,” concluded Dr. North, “by playing certain types of music to cows.”

In 2003, 10-year-old Daniel McElmurray won an award in his science fair at Goshen Elementary in Augusta, Ga., with a similar project: The herd kept by his dad, Earl, strongly prefers classical tunes over classic rock by Lynyrd Skynyrd and recent hits by Shania Twain—so much so that they produced “1,000 pounds [sic] more milk.”

All three researchers concluded that tempo was key. “I guess a slower beat helps them relax,” Daniel explained to CNN. I emailed Dr. North to ask whether he thought tonal variation might be important—that while faster, more rhythmic pop tunes allow for the interplay of just a handful of notes, and sound much like chanting, a slower pace might permit a more meandering melody that appeals more to cows, and that classical music, ranging exuberantly up and down the scale, would therefore be a sure-fire hit. “Impossible to tell based on our results, but I wouldn’t rule it out,” he replied.

I can’t answer that question myself, but I can offer, if not evidence, a suggestive example of variable music with a long bovine history. Since medieval times Swedish shepherdesses—“cowgirls” seems inappropriate, somehow—have used a peculiar vocal technique called kulning to communicate with cattle. Throughout the summer months these women wander over hill and dale singing, and the cattle follow them. A sample of this vocal technique, performed by Susanne Rosenberg, who writes Folksångerska on her customs forms and tax returns, can be heard here. If you fail to envision Valkyries in Valhalla when listening, you may be musically impaired (note: this music is also known to attract bosses and office snitches, so be careful). Nowadays kulning enlivens Swedish folk music and enthralls concert hall audiences. But, obsolete or not, it proves, if further proof was needed, that cows are deeply musical, or that music is deeply bovine, or both.

That music is marvelous is no surprise—how many tunes have you got on your iPod?—but that cows should marvel at music is astonishing.During that first time singing to the mod-hungry cattle, I was concerned for my safety. Dozens of the cows’ fellows grazing further afield had noticed the commotion and came galloping down—inasmuch as cows gallop—and I feared a stampede. I stopped walking and sang softly while they gathered and nudged one another to come closer. Soon their plaintive faces lined the low wall like a row of orphans in something by Charles Dickens. They wanted not porridge but song: the endless interplay of kindred notes, the spectacle of the feeble human voice—usually indistinct, I should think, from clacking sticks—soaring and subduing everything below. They even stopped twitching at flies. That music is marvelous is no surprise—how many tunes have you got on your iPod?—but that cows should marvel at music is astonishing.

Thinking they were now relatively calm, I resumed walking and raised my voice. I might as well have fired a gun. A thunder of hooves threatened to drown me out as they jostled to keep pace, all their great, black, orby cow eyes fixed on me as they followed. I sang and sang, and they kept close, listening eagerly, always wanting more, which is precisely the opposite of any human audience I have ever had.

There are, I’m sure, applications. Lifelong acclaim awaits the first rodeo man to yodel his bull to a standstill. Supermarket beef may one day feature a treble-clef logo as proof of humane breeding. Some future Spanish-Italian collaboration may yield the world’s first non-violent bullfighting opera. There is fortune and glory to be found at the intersection of the cattle and music industries, surely, but I am neither cowboy nor musician, so my interest lies elsewhere. It’s a more immediate, personal gratification, and it’s not merely my vanity flattered by so much bovine adulation (though in this situation I do feel a little like Bono. Or Robert Plant: “I am the Golden God”). It’s the same simple pleasure I get when a Labrador “speaks” on command, or a squirrel begs for an M & M—that frisson old ladies get from feeding city pigeons, that thrill academics receive while observing sign language fluency in primates. Quite why cows should like music is beyond me, one of the eternal mysteries, like why trees list over water and what causes piss-shivers. It’s just magic.

Try it for yourself. Pick an old tune (Gilbert and Sullivan are particularly popular; it’s as if they composed in a pasture) and warm up, if that helps. Accompany yourself on the guitar if you’re able. Like a wizard taming the wild or a shaman blessing the tribe, the power and glory are yours to seize. As ever, the last word is the Bard’s:

For do but note a wild and wanton herd,
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts,
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood;
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turn’d to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music: therefore the poet
Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones and floods;
Since nought so stockish, hard and full of rage,
But music for the time doth change his nature.

(LORENZO; Merchant of Venice, Act V Scene I)