Skip links

Program 528: Music By and For Elephants

KALW Broadcast Date: September 7, 2018 | Host: Randall Wong

It has been noted since ancient times that elephants seem to have an affinity for music. In 1957, German evolutionary biologist Bernard Rensch writes in Scientific American that he found elephants can distinguish at least 12 scale tones and remember simple melodies, even when played on different instruments at various pitches, timbres, and meters.

In 1942 Igor Stravinsky wrote the Circus Polka for a Young Elephant. It was composed for the choreographer George Balanchine and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey circus, for a ballet performed by 50 ballerinas and 50 elephants.

The Thai Elephant Orchestra began with a simple question: “If elephants can make beautiful paintings, why can’t they make music?” Trying to answer this question led Dave Soldier and Richard Lair to embark on designing, making, and buying the massive musical instruments needed for a completely unassisted elephant orchestra. The fourteen elephants perform on an array of heavy duty giant traditional Thai instruments, drums, harmonicas and mostly in a hocket style, i.e., the elephants play one pitch, similar to change ringing and together they create the melodies. The elephants are left completely to their own devices except for being told when to start, stop, and, occasionally the number of times to strike a particular instrument.

Program Audio

30-Second Spot

Track Info & Links

Title: Circus Polka for a Young Elephant
Composer: Igor Stravinsky
Performers: Vitya Vronsky and Victor Babin
Recording Title: Russian Music for Two Pianos
Record Label: Columbia
Catalog Number: ML 4157


Title: Last Monsoon of Summer, Gathering Storm Clouds, Two Rainbows, Bathing in the River, Teak Forest Mist, Monsoon Tempest
Composer: Thai Elephant Orchestra
Performers: Thai Elephant Orchestra
Recording Title: Water Music
Record Label: Mulatta Music
Catalog Number: #MUL020


Title: Circus Polka for a Young Elephant
Composer: Igor Stravinsky
Performers: CBC Symphony with Igor Stravinsky
Recording Title: Stravinsky Conducts Favorite Short Pieces
Record Label: Columbia
Catalog Number: MS 6648

Close Search

Start typing and press Enter to search