31. Music and Animals

Dolphins delight infinitely in music; they love it, and if any man sings or plays as he sails along in fair weather, they will quietly swim by the side of the ship, and listen till the music is ended.

Plutarch (46–120 AD)

References associating Music with animals is as old as literature. One is also struck by the wide variety of animals which appear when the subject under discussion is music. In addition to dolphins, one reads of swordfish, whales, elephants, horses, oxen, lions, tigers, bears, deer, wolves, asses, hogs, sloths, dogs, cats, silk-worms, flies, frogs, snakes, birds of many kinds, dragons and, in recent experiments, that rats prefer Bach to “rock.”1

For the most part, the value we find today in these animal references is in their potential for helping to illuminate the views of Music among the early writers. But the early writers had a difficult time with Music. They understood through observation that Music had powerful properties, something they often seem at a loss to explain. Above all, it was because they could not see Music that they were so puzzled why it could be so influential. This last characteristic, that Music is the only art you cannot see, is, we believe, why the ancients so often associated Music with religion rather than with the other arts.

From the perspective of the early Church perhaps there was some jealousy the normal people could so naturally be drawn to Music. In an interesting book, On Music, by St Augustine (fourth century), he first defines that by Music is meant only the theory of Music. At this time Music was admitted to the Liberal Arts only as a branch of mathematics. For this reason, St Augustine makes the point that it is the “knowing the numbers,” that is, knowledge of theory, which defines the musician. The person who understands Music without this knowledge is only a beast, meaning an animal can hear the sound but not the “music.” Augustine then makes the point that from the perspective of the Church one should listen to Music only as an entertainment, but not as something to be taken seriously.

Augustine. Aren’t those who like to listen to [Music] without this science to be compared to beasts? For we see elephants, bears, and many other kinds of beasts are moved by singing, and birds themselves are charmed by their own voices. For, with no further proper purpose, they would not do this with such effort without some pleasure.

Student. I judge so, but this reproach extends to nearly the whole of human kind.

Augustine. Not as much as you think. For great men, even if they know nothing about music, either wish to be one with the common people who are not very different from beasts and whose number is great; and they do this very properly and prudently. But this is not the place to discuss that. Or after great cares in order to relax and restore the mind they very moderately partake of some pleasure. And it is very proper to take it in from time to time. But to be taken in by it, even at times, is improper and disgraceful.2

To avoid this complication, we often have the impression that the ancient writers were more comfortable in transferring the wonder of Music to animals for observation and even sometimes for educational purposes, to influence the reader on some subject. In this last case we wonder if a passage about the thirteenth century philosopher, Albertus Magnus, might have been for the purpose of teaching the readers the importance of being quiet during a performance, here by the great blind keyboard player, Francesco Landini.

Now the sun rose higher and the heat of the day increased and the whole company remained in the pleasant shade; and as a thousand birds were singing among the verdant branches, someone asked Francesco to play the organ a little, to see whether the sound would make the birds increase or diminish their song. He did so at once, and a great wonder followed: for when the sound began many of the birds were seen to fall silent, and gather around as if in amazement, listening for a long time.3

There are several references in ancient literature where singers complain that they cannot sing unless they first moisten their throats with some wine! Perhaps feeling an educational obligation to pass on this information, without attracting the notice of the Church, the early Baroque Period poet, Franceisco de Quevedo (1580–1645), recommended this advice, and I join him on behalf of my singer friends. We have here a fly hoping to help a frog, whose singing was so dismal that he was known as the “Dutchman’s Nightingale,”

Out of the Wine-Pot cry’d the Fly,
Whilst the Grave Frog sat croaking by,
Than live a Watery Life like thine,
I’d rather choose to die in Wine.
In Gardens I delight to stray,
And round the Plants do sing and play: Thy Tune no Mortal does avail,
Thou are the Dutchman’s Nightingale:
Wouldst thou with Wine but wet thy Throat,
Sure thou would’st leave that Dismal Note;
Lewd Water spoils thy Organs quite,
And Wine alone can set them right.4

One of the questions asked by early poets came from their serious concern, “Can a Bad man be a Good singer?” The answer was usually, No, as we see in this very early Aesop (620–560 BC) fable of the wolf who played the double-flute, the aulos.

A kid had lagged behind the flock and was set upon by a wolf. The kid turned around and said to the wolf, “I’m sure that I’m to be your dinner, but just so that I won’t die ignominiously, play a tune on your aulos for me to dance to.” While the wolf played and the kid danced, the dogs heard and chased the wolf away. The wolf turned back and said to the kid, “This is what I deserve. A butcher like me oughtn’t to try to be an aulos player.”

Among the ancient writers, one of the most mentioned values of Music was its ability to soothe those who are agitated. This was the point of one of the most famous Greek Myths, that of Orpheus using his skill in Music to “tame the savage beast” (man). In the following version of this myth, told by Shakespeare,5 wild horses are tamed by, of all things, the sound of a trumpet!

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 turned 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.

There is a passage in the De animalibus by Albertus Magnus (thirteenth century), in which he makes the observation that “for some reason sheep eat better when they are soothed by the pleasant sound of music.”6 In another place this same author tells us that singing songs, together with a drum, is a way to catch dragons!7 And speaking of the drum, Erasmus wrote that “the tigress, if she hears the roll of drums all around her, is driven mad and ends by tearing herself to pieces.”8

Perhaps the most extraordinary tale of Music soothing animals is found among the medieval Volsung and Niblungs Epics. Here a character manages to soothe a den full of snakes while using his feet to play his harp as his hands were bound. His Music put them all to sleep, well—all but one snake!

So Gunnar was cast into a worm-close, and many worms abode him there, and his hands were fast bound; but Gudrun sent him a harp, and in such wise did he set forth his craft, that wisely he smote the harp, smiting it with his toes, and so excellently well he played, that few deemed they had heard such playing, even when the hand had done it. And with such might and power he played, that all the worms fell asleep in the end, save one adder only, great and evil of aspect, that crept unto him and thrust its sting into him until it smote his heart; and in such wise with great hardihood, he ended his life days.9

Finally, regarding the ability of Music to soothe animals, Cassiodorus (6th century), tells us that the best mode to use for such Music is the Hypodorian mode (“the lowest of all”) and confirms it is effective with “wild animals, serpents, birds and dolphins.”10

The attraction of dolphins to Music is frequently mentioned in early literature, including the example we have quoted at the top of this essay by Plutarch (46–120 AD). Earlier, in the ancient Greek drama literature, we find examples by Aristophanes (448–380 BC) in The Frogs and in Euripides (480–406 BC) in Electra. An unusual example is found in the Natural History11 by Pliny the Elder (first century AD), who writes that dolphins were especially charmed by hearing voices singing in harmony and by the sound of the water-organ!

There is one very famous, and most often retold, early story, one involving dolphins and Music by one of the earliest historians, Herodotus (fifth century BC), in his Histories,12

Most of his time Arion had spent with Periander, till he felt a longing to sail to Italy and Sicily. This he did; and after making a great deal of money in those countries, he decided to return to Corinth. He sailed from Tarentum in a Corinthian vessel, because he had more confidence in Corinthians than in anyone else. The crew, however, when the ship was at sea, hatched a plot to throw him overboard and steal his money. He got wind of their intention and begged them to take his money, but spare his life. To no purpose, however; for the sailors told him either to kill himself if he wanted to be buried ashore, or to jump overboard at once.

Arion, seeing they had made up their minds, as a last resource begged permission to stand on the after-deck, dressed in his singing robes, and give them a song: the song over, he promised to kill himself. Delighted at the prospect of hearing a song from the world’s most famous singer, the sailors all made their way forward from the stern and assembled amidships. Arion put on his full professional costume, took up his lute and, standing on the after-deck, played and sang a lively tune. Then he leapt into the sea, just as he was, with all his clothes on. The ship continued her voyage to Corinth, but a dolphin picked up Arion and carried him on its back to Taenarum.

As in this case of the help given Arion by a dolphin, there is a wide variety of written examples of animals helping man. A famous singer, Vicenzo Giustiniani13 claimed that in Lombardy the production by silk-worms was increased by listening to Music and that fishing for swordfish was aided by singing, but only if with Greek words!

With regard to fishing with Music, Herodotus, the great fifth century BC historian, relates a story he says was told by the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, to some ambassadors who were too late to gain his help.14

An aulos player saw some fish in the sea and played his aulos to them in the hope that they would come ashore. When they refused to do so, he took a net, netted a large catch, and hauled them in. Seeing the fish jumping about, he said to them: “It is too late to dance now: you might have danced to my Music–but you would not.

There are many accounts to be found in which various musical instruments are played by shepherds in the care of their flocks. One of these, by Polybius, (Rome, second century BC), provides a very detailed and interesting account of the various uses of Music for this purpose.

The impression that all the animals on the island of Corsica are wild arises from the following cause. The island is thickly wooded and the countryside so rocky and precipitous that it is impossible for the shepherds to follow their flocks and herds about as they graze. So, whenever they wish to collect them they take up position in some convenient place; from there they summon them by horn, and all the animals respond without fail to the instrument which they recognize. Now if any travelers who may touch at the island see goats and cattle grazing unattended and try to catch them, the animals will not come near them because they are not used to them and take to flight. Again, if the shepherd sees the strangers disembarking and sounds his horn, the herd will run off at full speed and gather round the horn. For this reason the animals give the appearance of being wild …

There is nothing surprising in the fact that the animals should obey the sound of a horn, for in Italy those who are engaged in herding swine use exactly the same method. The swineherd does not follow the animals, as he does in Greece, but walks in front and sounds a horn at intervals, while the animals keep behind him and respond to the call. Indeed the pigs have become so accustomed to answering the particular instrument belonging to their herd that those who witness this practice for the first time are amazed and can hardly believe their ears. The fact is that because of the great size of the population and the abundance of food the droves of swine in Italy are very large, especially among the inhabitants of Tuscany and the Gauls, so that a single farrowing of a single herd may produce a thousand or even more piglets. The peasants therefore drive them out from their night sites to feed according to their litters and ages. Then if several droves are taken to the same place, they cannot keep the various groups apart, and so they become mixed up, either while they are being driven out, or as they are feeding, or on the way home. So the swineherds invented the horn call as the simplest method of separating them without labor or trouble when the litters had become mixed. And in practice whenever one of the swineherds leads off in one direction sounding his horn, and another turns away in another direction, the animals separate of their own accord and follow with such eagerness the sound of the individual horn which they know that it is impossible to check them or turn them back.15

An unusual story about shepherds and their music is found in the second century Daphnis and Chloe, by Longus. Here, in a parody of frequent tales of singing contests in ancient literature, we find the cows are basically the judges and respond to the quality of the Music they heard.

Once upon a time there was a beautiful girl who used to graze a great many cows in a wood. Now she was also very musical, and in her day cows enjoyed music. So she was able to control them without either hitting them with a staff or pricking them with a goad. She would simply sit down under a pine, and after crowning herself with pine-twigs would sing the story of Pan and the Pine, and the cows would stay close enough to hear her voice. A boy who grazed cows not far away, and who was also good-looking and musical, challenged her to a singing contest. Because of his sex, he was able to produce more volume than she could, and yet because he was only a boy, his voice had a very sweet tone. So he charmed away her eight best cows and enticed them into his own herd.16

Of the various kinds of help given man by the animals, one of the most familiar references in early literature is with regard to hunting. The best known account of this practice is found in the second century AD book by Claudius Aelianus, Of the Characteristics of Animals,17

There is an Etruscan story current which says that the wild boars and the stags in that country are caught by using nets and hounds, as is the usual manner of hunting, but that Music plays a part, and even the larger part, in the struggle. And how this happens I will now relate. They set the nets and other hunting gear that ensnare the animals in a circle, and a man proficient on the aulos stands there and tries his utmost to play a rather soft tune, avoiding any shriller note, but playing the sweetest melodies possible. The quiet and stillness easily carry [the sound] abroad; and the music streams up to the heights and into ravines and thickets—in a word into every lair and resting place of these animals. Now at first when the sound penetrates to their ears it strikes them with terror and fills them with dread, and then an unalloyed and irresistible delight in the music takes hold of them, and they are so beguiled as to forget about their offspring and their homes. And yet wild beasts do not care to wander away from their native haunts. But little by little these creatures in Etruria are attracted as though by some persuasive spell, and beneath the wizardry of the music they come and fall into the snares, overpowered by the melody.

Finally, there are many interesting references to the uses of animals in aristocratic courts for entertainment. The earliest account we know is found in a fifteenth century hunting book published in Portugal which praised the noise of the hounds by stating that not even Guillaume de Machaut made such beautiful concordance of melody.

Guilherme de Machado nom fez tam fermosa concordanca de melodia, nem que tam bem pareca como a fazem os ca–es quando bem correm.18

After the heterogeneous ensemble practice of the Middle Ages, listeners during the sixteenth century developed a strong preference for hearing Music made by ensembles of the same kind of instrument, which was called a ‘consort.’ As we might expect, this preference was also transferred to animals in sixteenth-century literature. One Englishman recommends that the best equipped households will have their dogs organized in a consort in their kennels!

If you would have your kennels for sweetness of cry then you must compound it of some large dogs that have deep, solemn mouths … which must as it were bear the bass in consort, then a double number of roaring and loud-ringing mouths which must bear the counter tenor, then some hollow, plain, sweet mouths which must bear the mean or middle part and so with these three parts of music you shall make your cry perfect.19

Can one take this seriously? Shakespeare, in his A Midsummer Night’s Dream20 gave a similar description. “My hounds,” says Theseus, are,

Slow in pursuit, but matcht in mouth like bells,
Each under each. A cry more tuneable
Was never holla’d to, nor cheer’d with horn.

And again a reference to the dog-consort principle in Sidney’s The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia.21

Their cry being composed of so well sorted mouths, that any man would perceive therein some kind of proportion, but the skillful woodsmen did find a music.

There is extensive literature on the horse ballet, especially during the seventeenth century when this kind of entertainment became very popular in court celebrations. An early reference can be found in Pliny the Elder, who observes,

The horses docility is so great that we learn that the entire cavalry of the army of Sybaris used to perform a sort of ballet to instrumental Music (symphoniae).22

There are stories of the enemy obtaining the Music used by some city for their horse dances and then playing this Music in battle, causing the horses of the enemy to stand up and dance rather than attack. A seventeenth-century writer adds an interesting observation:

The trumpets are the instruments best to use of horse dancing because they [the horses] can learn to breathe when the trumpets breathe. There is no instrument more agreeable to the horse, because it is martial, and the horse which is naturally generous, likes to be animated by its sound.23

Most references to the trumpet are, of course, associated with the military, the power of the military trumpet used to inflame the passion of the horse. Consider this passage from the Old Testament:

With fierceness and rage he swallows the ground; he cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.
When the trumpet sounds, he says ‘Aha!’
He smells the battle from afar, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.24

A similar description is found in Aeschylus

As some wild war-horse when the trumpets sound
Stiffens and champs the curb and paws the ground.25

One can understand how a horse so trained could become a danger in peace time. In the sixteenth-century work by Sir Philip Sidney, The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, a horse, trained to respond to the sound of the trumpet, upon hearing the instrument played leaped forward, causing the surprised rider to almost fall from the saddle. [Book III, xiii] It was for this reason that when court persons were to travel in a procession with horses, the court trumpeters were required to spend some time in the stable playing for the horses, to acclimate them to the sound so as not to pose a danger to the women in the party.

… to goe often into the Stable, to acquainte the horses with the sound of the trumpet, and the noise of the drumme.26

A somewhat different illustration of the power of Music to inflame the passion of horses is mentioned by Aelianus with regard to the performance of the aulos in Libya.

This is the aulos Music which throws mares into an amorous frenzy and makes horses mad with desire to couple. This in fact is how the mating of horses is brought about.27

The sixteenth-century writer, Michel Montaigne, mentions in passing a quotation from Flavius Arrianus regarding an elephant which was said to simultaneously dance and play cymbals.28

Finally, not having mentioned cats, we include a horrible account by Athanasius Kircher, of the seventeenth century, of a keyboard instrument made of cats!

Not so long ago, in order to dispel the melancholy of some great prince, a noted and ingenious actor constructed an instrument such as this. He took live cats all of different sizes, and shut them up in a kind of box especially made for this business, so that their tails, stuck through the holes, were inserted tightly into certain channels. Under these he put keys fitted with the sharpest points instead of mallets. Then he arranged the cats tonally according to their different sizes, so that each key corresponded to the tail of one cat, and he put the instrument prepared for the relaxation of the prince in a suitable place. Then when it was played, it produced such Music as the voices of cats can produce. For when the keys, depressed by the fingers of the organist, pricked the tails of the cats with their points, they, driven to a rage, with miserable voices, howling now low, now high, produced such Music made of the voices of cats as would move men to laughter and even arouse shrews to dance.29


  1. http://www.sound therapy.co.uk/research/musicresearch.php ↩︎
  2. On Music, trans. Taliaferro, I, iv ↩︎
  3. Giovanni da Prato, Peradiso degli Alberti, 1389 ↩︎
  4. in An Anthology of Spanish Poetry, ed. Crow, 113 ↩︎
  5. The Merchant of Venice, V, I, 70ff ↩︎
  6. De animalibus, trans. Scanlan, 169 ↩︎
  7. Ibid., 404 ↩︎
  8. Collected Works, XXIII, 175 ↩︎
  9. Epic and Saga, in The Harvard Classics, XLIX, 372 ↩︎
  10. On Music, in An Introduction to Divine and Human Readings, trans. Jones, 8 ↩︎
  11. IX, viii, 25 ↩︎
  12. I, 24 ↩︎
  13. Discorso sopra la Musica (1628), trans. MacClintock, 75ff ↩︎
  14. The Histories, I, 142 ↩︎
  15. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, Penguin, 430 ↩︎
  16. Longus, trans. Turner, I, 37 ↩︎
  17. XII, 46 ↩︎
  18. Machaut, Musikalische Werke, ed. Ludwig, II, 32 ↩︎
  19. Berton, The Pageant of Elisabethen England, 190 ↩︎
  20. IV, 1 ↩︎
  21. I. Book 1, x ↩︎
  22. Natural History, VIII, lxiv, 157 ↩︎
  23. Menestrier, Des Ballets anciens et modernes, 1682, 238 ↩︎
  24. Job 39:20 ↩︎
  25. Seven Against Thebes, 386 ↩︎
  26. Jones, The Household of a Tudor Nobleman, 229 ↩︎
  27. Characteristics of Animals, Op. cit., XII, 44 ↩︎
  28. Montaigne, Essays, trans. Screech, II, xii, 534. He also discusses the affinity of tunny-fish for astrology, geometry and arithmetic! ↩︎
  29. Musurgia universalis, 138ff ↩︎