When it comes to musical preferences, animals can often live up to their stereotypes. Cows like their playlists calm and introspective – they’re apparently big fans of REM. Great white sharks rock out to heavy metal (what else?). And cats – well, cats don’t really care about your pathetic human music at all.
And, apparently, elephants like classical. At least, the ones at Elephants World sanctuary in Thailand do – and that’s thanks to musician Paul Barton and his piano.
Using elephants for labor is a practice stretching back thousands of years in Asia, and in certain countries the animals have similar protections to human employees – maternity leave, holidays, and a nice retirement.
But in Thailand, several thousands of elephants were made redundant in 1989, when the government introduced a complete ban on logging.
“We liked the sound of… a retirement center for old, injured and handicapped former logging and trekking elephants," Barton told CBS News. "So we paid them a visit. I wondered if these old rescue elephants might like to listen to some slow classical music.”
Barton has dozens of videos of the sanctuary's elderly and blind elephants appearing to enjoy his music, each racking up thousands of views online. One, “Bach on Piano for Blind Elephant”, has been watched 1.5 million times.
While we can’t know for sure exactly what the polymath pachyderms are getting out of it, the idea that they enjoy a bit of Romantic composition isn’t that farfetched. A small study from 2008 suggested that exposing elephants to classical music helped reduce stereotypy – the distressing, repetitive behavior seen when captive animals are denied social and environmental enrichment.
Records of elephants’ discerning taste in music stretch as far back as Roman times, but modern jumbos have taken a more active role in the music industry. Back in 2000, six elephants formed an orchestra and released a charity single, while Smithsonian resident Shanthi plays a mean harmonica.
Elephant artistes have shone outside the realm of music too: paintings by elephants have been sold at auction for as much as $25,000, and in 2014 and 2015 we were treated to the world’s first elephant selfies.
All this is simply because elephants are notoriously smart: they can do math, they can disable electric fences, and they’re existentially aware. Compared to all that, what’s so surprising about indulging in a bit of Chopin?