Music To Tame The Wild Beast (Part 1)
August 23, 2013

Music To Tame The Wild Beast (Part 1)

In the forests of northern Thailand, an hour outside the city of Chiang Mai, a gong sounds. Low bells chime. A group of musicians stand in a circle, beating out a halting melody.

Dave Soldier, co-founder of the group, claims their music is often likened to Thai temple music. The players, however, are not Buddhist monks. They’re not even human.

Soldier, a neurochemist and musician, created the Thai Elephant Orchestra 13 years ago with Richard Lair, an elephant conservationist at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC). The elephant ensemble has released three CDs to date. A few members of the group also perform live for tourists.

The elephants jam away on percussive instruments, including gongs, marimbas, and drums. A few elephants play harmonicas gripped in their trunks. Many of their instruments (except the harmonicas) are based on Thai instruments, custom built to accommodate their jumbo-sized musicians, and feature Thai musical scales.

The elephants are told when to start and stop, but otherwise, they make whatever sounds and melodies they like best. And never, Soldier claims, have their compositions been taken for anything but music. When asked whether the elephants are actually making music, Soldier replies that this sort of question “should also arise with people. If, say, you’re playing in the school orchestra as a kid, are you doing it because you want to do it? Did you build the instruments? Did you write the music? Of course not.”

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Those familiar with the animals aren’t surprised by their musical inclinations. Elephants seem to enjoy listening to music, so much so that their mahouts often sing tunes to keep them calm. And the elephants have already vaunted their creative ability through their paintings.

These big beasts also boast big, complex brains. They have exceptional problem solving abilities and, because they live in a rich social environment, they have many of the same social abilities as humans, including self-awareness, vocal mimicry, and empathy.

That wealth of social intelligence is probably crucial for musical ability. In humans, many of the abilities involved in music are also necessary for language. Dancing also seems to be linked to vocal communication: only animals that use vocal mimicry, like parrots, seem to have the ability to dance to a beat.

Mimicry and dancing both involve neural circuitry that links what we hear to how we move. Those links allow dancers and musicians to match their movements to an external rhythm, a process called rhythm entrainment. In humans, rhythm entrainment gives us the ability, not just to make music, but to make it together. Shared musical experiences — singing along with your favorite band, or dancing with your friends at a club — release endorphins, while stimulating group cohesion and cooperation. This makes music a prime social lubricant.

Other animal musicians use song and rhythm to find mates and mark territories. Whales, pinnipeds, and birds produce complex, learned melodies during mating periods. Apes use a type of drumming in territorial displays, beating out rhythms on trees roots and on their own chests.

Elephants, however, aren’t naturally inclined to make music. They don’t sing in the wild. They don’t drum spontaneously. They don’t play their instruments without human prompting, unless another elephant is already playing. Nor is there evidence that the elephants treat these acoustical missives with any sort of social significance. And the ensembles that Lair and Soldier produce with their giant artistes are coordinated by humans, not by the elephants. So, is this whole act just humans making music for other humans, with elephantine instruments?

Perhaps not. Elephants do seem to have a wealth of latent musicality. Elephants are able to distinguish melodies and musical pitches. One group of researchers found that one elephant in the orchestra (a pachyderm named Pratidah) had a remarkable ability to keep a steady beat. Another research group combed through scores of videos of dancing animals on YouTube, and found at least one Asian elephant that can move to a beat. That means it’s possible for the elephants to entrain rhythm, one of the crucial elements of human musicality.

For neuroscientists and psychologists looking for the origins of music, the Thai Elephant Orchestra could be a fascinating living experiment. Biomusicologists puzzle over why some animals create natural forms of music while other social, intelligent animals do not. These pachyderm performers might provide some clues.

In the meantime, Lair and Soldier have no doubt that their elephantine ensemble enjoys playing their instruments. The publicity and CD sales raise funds and awareness for the plight of elephants in Thailand. And it’s pretty good fun for the tourists, too.

Image Credit: Mulatta Records

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