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Bizarre Musical Instruments - The Cat Organ

Updated on February 20, 2012

Before I begin I'd like to say that I have nothing against cats and even have my own lovable stray which has adopted me as an easy source of food. As such I feel it absolutely despicable that live animals could ever be used in such a way by any member of the human race, no matter from which time period they hailed. Nether-the-less it was the absolute bizarreness of the cat organ and the psychiatric quackery associated around it that compelled me to write an article about it. Thankfully such horrors would be frowned upon in today's still flawed but vastly improved society.

An illustration of a cat organ, what on Earth were they thinking?
An illustration of a cat organ, what on Earth were they thinking? | Source

The cat organ, a cruel musical instrument

The cat organ (also called the cat piano or by it's original German name the Katzenklavier) is a medieval, keyboard-controlled, musical instrument that cruelly used live cats to produce the sound of the instrument. Cats would be selected according to the natural tone of their howl, lined up at the back of the keyboard and fixed in place in cages so that they couldn't escape. The tail of each cat would be positioned underneath the keyboard mechanism so that the correspondingly pitched cat would howl out in pain as each key was pressed. Various methods of causing the cat to feel pain have been described in old texts about the cat organ including using a mechanism that pulls the tail when a key is pressed, a mechanism that pricks the tail with a nail when a key is pressed or simply utilizing the force of the key itself being pressed down hard onto the tail of the cat.

The invention of the cat organ has been attributed to the German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher (1601/02-1680), although there is evidence that cat organs and other cruel instruments using other species existed before he was even born. According to a story in a 1657 text by his student Caspar Shott, Kircher invented the Katzenklavier to cure an Italian Prince of his depression by playing the instrument for him as entertainment. This seems like a sick way to cheer a person up and indeed it was but at the time Europe was still hunting witches and sadly I doubt the lives of cats (or even other humans for that matter) were held with much respect. Due to the obvious difficulties in making and tuning this instrument, thankfully it's unlikely that this instrument was every in wide-spread use.

Many years later the German psychiatric doctor Johann Christian Reil (1759–1813) wrote about using the Katzenklavier to treat psychiatric patients who had become unresponsive to treatment and had no ability to focus their attention on anything at all. He thought that any patient who was forced to see and hear the instrument being played would be cured of their condition. He based his entire theory around the idea that because the sounds of the tortured cats would be impossible to ignore it would no doubt attract the attention of even the most unresponsive of patients, in turn removing them from their current unresponsive state. Thankfully modern science was introduced into the field of psychiatry, the idea never gained traction and the use of the cat organ was never resurrected.

Modern appearances of the cat organ

There have been several references to or parodies of the cat organ or Katzenklavier in modern times, these include:

  • Terry Jones plays a similarly themed mouse organ in a Monty Python sketch. In the sketch he plays The Bells of Saint Mary using mallets to supposedly hit the mice which are hidden from the audience.
  • The muppet character Marvin Suggs plays the song Witch Docter on his muppet-themed muppaphone which is made from pink and orange furry, singing muppet balls.
  • A modern version of the instrument without a keyboard and played by pressing tuned cat squeaky toys instead of real cats has been used by Henry Dagg to play Somewhere Over the Rainbow on several occasions. Most notably at a garden party held at Clarence House by Prince Charles in 2010 and on the 2010/11 New Year's Eve music television show Jools' Annual Hootenanny, hosted by Jools Holland.
  • The animation studio The People's Republic Of Animation creation a short animated film titled The Cat Piano. The film tells the story of a city of cats in which all the cat singers have been abducted by a mad human musician for his cat piano. The film follows a cat poet (narrated by the Australian musician Nick Cave) who leads a makeshift army of strays to attack the musician and free the captured cats.

All of these videos are available to view on YouTube if anyone is interested in watching them.


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      Indigital 6 years ago

      Crazy, I doubt my cat would enjoy being part of the piano.