The Joy of Making Music, Animal-Style

It seems that we could all do with a little more happiness and calm these days. Animals seem to be less keyed up than we are and perhaps we could take a note out of their books…

Music making is seen as a human activity. However, animals also make music and not just using their own natural sounds. Mozart may have transcribed the melody of his pet starling in a diary; Beethoven may have included representations of real birds in his Pastoral Symphony, and whale songs may have been recorded for meditation purposes, but it seems that animals’ musical abilities go far beyond this.

Elephants, for example, can actually play instruments, especially gongs, drums and even harmonicas which they sometimes blow into their own ears using the flexibility like fingers at the ends of their trunks.

In 2000, Richard Lair, aka Professor Elephant, set up the Thai Elephant Orchestra along with Soldier, an accomplished musician and composer and professor of neuroscience at Columbia University. Together they built 22 giant instruments in a metal workshop, all designed to be operated with the elephant’s trunk or with a stick held in the trunk. Since then, they have gone on to prove that elephants can not only distinguish basic melodies but also set up original rhythms. Interestingly, elephants prefer their music well-tuned. They learn where the sweet spot is on the instrument without being taught and avoid dissonance wherever possible.

The Orchestra has now recorded several albums some of which are improvised and the only cues given to the elephants are when to start and stop playing. Others melodies are renditions of traditional Thai melodies using five note scales. When a (human) orchestra in New York performed an arrangement of one of the elephants’ own compositions, asking the audience who they thought the composer was, the answers came back with names such as John Cage, Dvorak and Charles Ives.

Elephants aren’t the only ones to perform original music. I once had a dog who would sing ecstatically to the harmonica, displaying a quite extraordinary vocal range. Peter Gabriel performed an impressive duet with a bonobo, a pygmy chimpanzee, playing a keyboard. Chimpanzees can play hand-bells and certain monkeys will form choirs and sing together. Philosopher David Rothenberg set up a duet between his flute and a white-crested laughing thrush and captive zebra finches have been known to sing when asked.

In all cases, music making seems to calm the animals and make them happy so perhaps we should consider taking a leaf out of their book by creating a little more harmony. The more of us that get together and make music, the happier and more relaxed we will all be. Our pets will enjoy it too and, you never know, they might even join in…

Happy March!

Love Laurelle