Music for elephants


By Marilyn Delk


“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”

The above quote from Greek philospher Plato was made around 400 BCE, but still holds true in the twenty-first century AD—and will remain a fact of life for as long as life itself exists. Music expresses feelings, reduces stress and is a universal gift connecting people regardless of language, race, ethnicity, or other divisions. Music speaks when words fail, bringing comfort and healing, inspiring joy and wonder, mysteriously communicating across great divides. This basic truth apparently reaches across species, an idea that was recently reinforced by the heartwarming news story about British pianist Paul Barton, who posts videos on YouTube showing him performing for an unusual audience at an elephant rescue facility in Thailand.

After reading fascinating news reports about music having a calming effect on a blind elephant named Lam Duan (which means “tree with yellow flowers”), I joined millions of viewers who have watched the sweet video showing the pianist playing for a receptive audience of huge proportions, even though only one audience member was in attendance at this outdoor concert. Several news sources have interviewed Barton, who studied art at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and has not only worked as a concert pianist but also as a professional portrait painter. A visit to Thailand while in his 30’s resulted in Barton’s meeting with an artist who became his wife; he has lived in Thailand since their 1996 marriage.

Barton’s wife, Khwan, created sculptures of elephants housed at “Elephants World,” a sanctuary on the banks of the River Kwai, where she persuaded staff at the facility to allow her husband to place a piano in a peaceful field where the elephants gathered for breakfast; this proved to be a somewhat challenging task in and of itself. However, the piano was eventually set amid the growth of bana grass (a hybrid cross between elephant grass and pearl millet),where the pianist started playing. At first he found that it was difficult to hear the piano above the sounds of nature and the elephants’ munching; but soon the the blind elephant stopped eating to listen, leading the musician to realize that the creature loved the music.

Since that initial performance, Paul Barton has continued the practice of providing music for elephants. He says that the male elephants, who he describes as “moody and dangerous,” listen to the music more than the females do; he believes that the music somehow calms them. “Their breathing actually slows down when you play, which tells me they are relaxed and happy,” he explained. A particularly dangerous bull elephant once walked straight to the piano when the music started, then peacefully curled his huge trunk in towards his mouth, an act that the pianist described as “looking like a baby sucking its thumb.” Some elephants “dance to Beethoven;” however, one of those Beethoven-lovers immediately walks away when the music of Schubert is played.

Interestingly, the elephants do not react to pre-recorded music, or an electric piano. (One has to wonder where an electric piano would be plugged in at a wildlife sanctuary, but I could find no explanation for how that lack of reaction was discovered.) Barton believes that the sounds vibrating off the wood of an acoustic piano provide the means for communicating with the animals, who not only have excellent hearing, but also can pick up sounds through their feet. In any case, this universal truth stated by Barton and quoted in The Guardian sums up the phenomena perfectly: “Music really does connect us all; it’s a universal language.”

No posts to display