Let's be clear about one thing: the cat piano—a "musical" instrument played by forcing cats to meow—is not real. But people have been talking about it for over 400 years.
Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit scholar and inventor who was born on this day in 1602, proposed it to “raise the spirits of an Italian prince burdened by the cares of his position.” The idea was originally described in Musurgia Universalis, Kircher’s influential book of musicology that has been well-known among scholars since it was first published in 1650. Animals feature heavily in the book, both as makers and listeners of music. From bird song to the noise producing organs of bees, one of the massive book's focuses is on non-human music. However, the cat piano is one of its stranger diversions.
There’s no evidence that the cat piano was ever made, writes Lucas Reilly for Mental Floss, but here’s how it would work in Kircher’s own words (translated from the original Latin). The player of such a piano would select "cats whose natural voices were at different pitches and arranged them in cages side by side, so that when a key on the piano was depressed, a mechanism drove a sharp spike in the appropriate cat’s tail." The result, he wrote, would be "a melody of meows that became more vigorous as the cats became more desperate."
Grim, right? Not to Kircher, evidently, because, "Who could help but laugh at such music?" he asked, concluding, "Thus the prince was raised from his melancholy."
Most people today wouldn’t find cats screaming in pain very amusing, but early modern Europeans had a very different attitude towards cats, so it wasn’t totally unreasonable to advance the idea that—in theory—someone might find this humorous.
In fact, Kircher wasn’t even the first one to come up with it, writes Reilly. “Accounts of the instrument existed before Kircher was born,” he writes. “In the 16th century, historian Juan Calvete de Estrella described seeing one when King Phillip II processed into Brussels. The parade was rowdy, and it included a cat organ played by a chariot-riding bear.”
The first image of the cat piano come from a book printed around 1600, according to the Museum of Imaginary Instruments. It shows a cat piano being played as part of a witch’s ritual, as other animals stand around like singers, facing music stands.
Historical accounts being what they were in the 1600s, Reilly writes, it’s most likely that the cat piano was never constructed. But the idea did get new life from Kircher’s treatment: in 1803, the German psychiatrist who actually coined the word “psychiatry” thought the "katzenclavier" might be of help for chronic daydreamers. “A fugue played on this instrument,” he wrote, must bring even the most catatonic person to consciousness.
The idea caught the fancy of more recent artists: in 2009, Nick Cave narrated an animated short film about the cat piano.