Five Animals That Make Damn Good Musicians

No, not those Animals...
No, not those Animals...
Richard William Laws via Wikipedia

Several things separate human beings from the rest of the animals. We can put them in Halloween costumes and they can't put us in ones, we have smartphones, and there's the whole food-chain thing as well.

Music, however, is not one of those things unknown to the animal kingdom. Sometimes they turn out to be pretty damned good, and today we look at a few of the best.

Thai Elephant Orchestra In Lampang, Northern Thailand, an American named Richard Lair -- commonly called "Professor Elephant" -- runs an elephant conservancy. He also created the world's first elephant orchestra partly as a gimmick to raise funds for his cause, but once his animals had the instruments in their trunks he found that they we capable of producing rather amazingly complex pieces.

According to the BBC News, Lair constructed 22 specially made musical instruments meant to be played with the trunk. He figured that he would have to reward them each and every time they hit a note or a rhythm, but instead the animals just got down to jamming. They are also capable of playing standard harmonicas.

The project was born out of research at the University of Kansas that used basic food rewards to prove that elephants could distinguish melodies from each other, and had the capacity to hear fine gradations of tone. Lair's work is pretty indicative of elephants having music in their souls.

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Operatic Parrots Parrots can mimic human sounds. That's been known for years; however, it was generally understood that mimicry was all it was. Larger, more complex verbal communications were beyond them.

Except that it isn't. Not only can plenty of parrots sing, but they sing the hard stuff! People seem very keen on teaching parrots opera, with Mozart's The Magic Flute and "Nessun Dorma" appearing to be the most popular tunes. It's not perfect, mind you, but it's probably a lot better than most of us can do.

Sonata Dogs Kirk Nurock is an experimental composer and pianist who has worked with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Leonard Bernstein. The reason he is on this list, however, is because of a work he created in the '80s that played Carnegie Hall and got him national attention.

The show was called Howl, and it was famous for incorporating howling canines in with the music. He created several works that featured dogs yipping or howling, including Expedition For Jazz Trio and Siberian Husky and the Sonata for Piano and Dog you'll see him performing on David Letterman in the video above. It's a remarkable performance that indicates a deeper understanding of pitch in dogs than we might have thought.

Several famous composers have utilized dogs as critics in the past. Richard Wagner kept a special stool near his piano for his Cavalier King Charles to sit at, and would alter the composition based on the dog's mood. As far as I know, though, Nurock has taken the arc of dog music the furthest.

List continues on the next page.

 

Emperor Tamarin
Emperor Tamarin
Brocken Inaglory via Wikipedia

Composing Tamarins Listening to some of the previous examples, you might be skeptical about what is and isn't music. Here's a question for you, though: why would you expect animals to like human music? After all, most Westerners find Middle Eastern music discordant and terrible, while the U.S. military has blasted American metal and children's show tunes at certain adversaries in order to break their will, they hate it so much. (And may owe royalties to certain songwriters, according to this 2008 article in The Guardian.)

Psychologist Charles Snowdon of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and composer David Teie of the University of Maryland decided to see if they could interest tamarin monkeys in music by paying attention to the structure and tones of their calls. After much study, Teis composed two pieces for cello and voice; the first was based on calls the tamarins used when scared, and the other when happy. You can here the happy one here.

Teie and Snowdon played the pieces back to the tamarins, who ignored human composers like Samuel Barber and Nine Inch Nails but exhibited dread and joy when played the corresponding pieces. So maybe the problem isn't that animals aren't musical, it's just that they think our music is crap.

Five Animals That Make Damn Good Musicians
A still from Peter Gabriel's TED talk

Peter Gabriel's Bonobo On the other hand, Peter Gabriel would argue with that. He should know, he jammed out with a bonobo and made something spectacular. Diana Reiss, a cognitive psychologist who studies intelligence in animals, got a call from Gabriel. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer had read about Reiss' research with animals and music, and figured that playing with musicians who didn't speak English was no harder than playing with animals, and wanted to give it a shot.

You can see the result as part of this TED talk, and you really should watch it. The bonobo is encouraged to play a calm, soothing song about grooming at her first time at the keyboard. Gabriel backs her up with ambient, and what comes out is very much magic.

The song of the bonobo is serene and beautiful and also in key. She discovers a fondness for E, and effortlessly finds the octave to create a basic chord. It's staggering to behold, and if it's not exactly Julliard material you still have to ask yourself when the last time a member of Genesis asked you if you wanted to play with them.

Jef has a new story, a tale of headless strippers and The Rolling Stones, available now in Broken Mirrors, Fractured Minds. You can also connect with him on Facebook.

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