Tag Archives: Elephant

Dancing elephants in ancient Rome

In his De natura animalium, Claudius Aelianus described the training of dancing elephants.

“To begin with, [the trainer] introduced them in a quiet, gentle fashion to his instructions, supplying them with delicacies and the most appetizing food, varied so as to allure and entice them into abandoning all trace of ferocity…So what they learned was not to go wild at the sound of the flutes (auloi), not to be alarmed at the beating of drums (tympanon), to be charmed by the pipe (syrinx), and to endure the beat of marching feet and the singing of crowds.”

Noting that elephants have a keen sense of music and an aptitude for learning, Aelian reported that they successfully mastered “the movements of a chorus, the steps of a dance, how to march in time, how to enjoy the sound of auloi, and how to distinguish different notes.”

This according to “Vox naturae: Music as human-animal communication in the context of animal training in ancient Rome” by Rodney Martin Cross (Greek and Roman musical studies V/2 [2017] pp. 147–58).

Below, two elephants enjoying a serenade.

Related article: The Thai Elephant Orchestra

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The Thai Elephant Orchestra

thai elephant orchestra

Thailand’s National Elephant Institute  is the first government-sponsored organization dedicated to the long-term future of the domesticated elephant; but it also requires funds from tourism for its upkeep.

To establish an orchestra that could raise financial support from tourists, instruments were designed that could be operable with their trunks, and that were large and strong enough to stand up to very powerful animals and monsoons. The Thai Elephant Orchestra was soon a reality.

To teach them, a mahout demonstrates an instrument and the elephant begins to play almost immediately. The animals learn through experimentation how to make their instruments sound the best.

Once the group is assembled, the mahouts cue the elephants to begin and stop playing. They now perform daily concerts, and often refuse to stop when they are told to do so.

This according to “Eine kleine naughtmusik: How nefarious nonartists cleverly imitate music” by David Soldier (Leonardo music journal XII [2002] pp. 53–58). Above and below, the orchestra in action.

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Pachyderm proclamations

Elephants can communicate using sounds below the range of human hearing (infrasounds below 20 hertz). These vocalizations have been presumed to be produced in the larynx, either by neurally controlled muscle twitching (as in cat purring) or by flow-induced self-sustained vibrations of the vocal folds (as in human speech and song).

In an experiment, direct high-speed video observations of an elephant larynx demonstrated flow-induced self-sustained vocal fold vibration in the absence of any neural signals, thus excluding the need for any purring mechanism. The observed physical principles of voice production apply to a wide variety of mammals, extending across a remarkably large range of fundamental frequencies and body sizes, spanning more than five orders of magnitude.

This according to “How low can you go? Physical production mechanism of elephant infrasonic vocalizations” by Christian T. Herbst, et al. (Science CCCXXXVII/6094 [3 August 2012] pp. 595–599). Below, a podcast interview with Dr. Herbst provides examples and further details (including the fact that the elephant had died of natural causes).

Kerry Klein speaks with Christian Herbst about recreating and analyzing the lowest vocalizations that elephants produce

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