The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular published a short article titled “Music for Animals” in 1897. The article discussed various animals’ tastes in music–from dogs and elephants to lions and rats. There was a zoo elephant in Paris who had her own concert, a nobleman who hired an orchestra to play for his horses and lots of dogs who howled along with the piano.
Playing music for other animals isn’t anything new. As long as humans and other animals have lived together, I imagine that we’ve interacted with each other using music. There are the flutes of snake charmers, the melodies of milk maids, the songs of shepherds. And yet today, in the United States anyway, ‘music for animals’ most often means a CD you put on the stereo when you’ve left the house so that your dog or cat or parrot feels calm. They are mostly Mozart or Bach or instrumental.
I never really bought the idea that nonhumans only like classical music though. Individual animals have tastes, just like we do. There is likely no “music for dogs” just as there is no “music for humans.” There are things we can hear and certain decibel levels that hurt our ears–but beyond that, species level music doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
I also got curious about what it would be like to play shows for animals who are normally shows themselves. What might we learn about them as individuals? What might we learn about us?
Nothing exposes the limits of the human imagination more than imagining what it is like to be someone else. Particularly if that someone else is nonhuman.
With this in mind, I have been putting together a series of concerts for other animals.
Check out the BBC’s coverage of the project.
Grass Widow played for the gorillas at Franklin Park Zoo in Boston.
Jason Holt of Spectrum played for sea lions on a public pier north of Monterey. Pete Frauenfelder of Trainwreck Riders and Slow Motion Cowboys played for Mac, a lonely miniature donkey in Southern California. Good Shield Aguilar played for the bison of Golden Gate Park.
Right now I am planning shows for hyenas, dogs, raccoons, rats and more….and am seeking funding to bring Ian Svenonius/Chain and the Gang to Russia to play for bears in rehab…
…Spectrum to play for giraffes…
…Abigail Washburn to play for orangutans…
…and Robert Vijay Gupta to play for whales…
I’m not the first person to do this. Check out Jim Nollman’s work with whales (among other species), David Rothenberg‘s bird and whale collaborations, and Laurie Anderson’s canine concerts in Sydney and NYC. There has even been some research. Scientists at University of Wisconsin-Madison did this experiment on tamarins and music and found that, perhaps not surprisingly, they prefer music that drew from their own emotive calls. Though they also liked Metallica. And in Hong Kong, 20,000 chickens listen to a mix of classical, jazz, rap and Cantopop (Cantonese pop music) every day.
I prefer Michael Hurley.
(Photos from top: Pete playing for Mac the miniature burro; Grass Widow the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston playing for gorillas; Hannah Lew, Lily Maring, and Raven Mahon interact with Kiki and her newborn baby Kambari; Kit looking at the drum kit; Mac preferred bluegrass standards; Bison in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, Good Shield Aguilar playing for the bison; Jason Holt playing for sea lions at Moss Landing in Northern California.)