Our headline is really a common misquote of the line from a poem by William Congreve from 1697; but it is an apt introduction to the music for elephants and monkeys projects of pianist Paul Barton.
British musician Paul Barton is a 59 year old pianist from Yorkshire, who left the music halls of Europe behind in the 1990s. These days his audiences in Thailand are very different from those European concert goers.
He now not only plays his classical numbers for rescued elephants living out their lives at a Kanchanaburi wildlife sanctuary, but also to the macaque population of downtown Lampang.
Arrangements of Schubert, Chopin, and Beethoven are amongst, Paul’s repertoire with many a video footage available of performances serenading these animals.
Like many expats, Barton’s migration to Thailand was unplanned. Instead, it came as a surprise twist to what was to have been a short-term stay in Bangkok, after falling in love with his Thai wife Kwan, a wildlife artist.
Initially splitting his time between Bangkok and Kanchanaburi, Paul has spent more than a decade playing music to elephants at the Elephants World Sanctuary, which cares for 28 pachyderms often rescued from the logging industry.
He’ll load up a truck with a piano or two in Bangkok before setting off on his mission to explore the reaction of wild creatures to his soothing piano performances.
Paul says “The first time I played piano at the sanctuary, a blind elephant called Plara was closest to the piano by coincidence. He was having his breakfast but when he heard the music for the first time, he suddenly stopped eating with the grass protruding from his mouth and stayed motionless all through the music.
Plara really liked slow classical music and each time I played piano, he curled his trunk and held the tip trembling in his mouth until the music was over.”
According to Paul, almost all elephants react to music in a visible way. “There’s a sudden movement when the music begins. Some elephants get very close to the piano of their own accord. They might drape their trunk over the piano even. Some hold their trunk in their mouth when listening, some start to sway with the rhythm of the music.”
A YouTube video of Paul playing Debussy “Clair de Lune” for a gentle female elephant called Ampan has been viewed more than eight million times. Ampan is 80 years old, blind in one eye and can barely see with the other. 80 years old is about 10 years past the natural life span of an elephant in the wild. Here is a the video to that performance:
More recently Paul transported his pianos to venues in Lopburi, a province famous for its marauding monkeys, putting on performances at an ancient Hindu temple, a hardware store and a derelict cinema.
The macaques were quickly drawn to the strains of Greensleeves, Beethoven’s Fur Elise and Michael Nyman’s Diary of Love, some sharing his stool, others climbing onto his shoulders and touching his head.
Paul said this was “a wonderful opportunity to see the wild animals just being themselves, I was surprised to play the piano and find that they were actually eating the music as I was playing it. “Although the music had a calming effect, not being hungry also reduces their stress and the way they interact with humans.” “I wasn’t going to let those things distract from the project which is to play the music for these wonderful macaques.”
He hopes to raise awareness of the monkeys’ hunger while also studying their behavioural responses to classical music. “I like to play music to animals that have had a stressful life; It’s possible that the music can play a part of the rehabilitation process,” he said.
A video of Paul’s ‘Music for Monkeys’ project recorded in November 2020 can be seen here: