When I told one of my pals that I was writing about the cat piano, she excitedly remarked, “Oh! I have that app on my phone!” and began to reach for it. “No,” I mansplained, “while I’m sure that piece of mobile technology is interesting and amusing, I am, of course, referring to the katzenklavier, a theoretical device from around 1650.” Cat piano is only a loose translation of katzenklavier, as the piano itself wouldn’t be invented for another 50 years, give or take.
The term can also usefully be translated as “cat keyboard” or “cat organ,” but we’ll stick to “cat piano” for the sake of convenience. Similar to the smartphone app my friend mentioned, the cat piano Kircher wrote of was intended to create music using the voices of cats. Of course, Kircher lived several centuries before cat song could be synthesized and auto-tuned. Given the technological limitations of the era, intrepid inventors had to think more practically when it came to involving cat voices in musical performance. The cat piano’s proposed functionality gave it, even in theory, an unseemly, even gruesome, twist.
The cat piano and early modern music therapy
There is no doubt that Athanasius Kircher was brilliant. Born in what is now Germany, he was a Jesuit priest during a time when men of religion were also men of science. He spoke and taught several languages, and he worked in fields as diverse as Eastern and African cultures, ethics, geology, mathematics, mechanical engineering, medicine and music. His greatest contribution to the latter was Musurgia Universalis (1650), a favorite book of composers that included Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven.
A massively influential work, it surveyed multiple topics, including the ways sound functions and the ways music affects people. This is where the cat piano comes in. Kircher tells a story about an Italian nobleman afflicted with melancholy, or what we might today call depression. Seeking a solution to his spiritual malaise, a musician came to him with a fantastical device, the katzenklavier. It looked very much like the keyboard instruments of the day, with the exception that, along with the a simple row of strings and hammers, it also contained a lineup of cats.
How the cat piano worked
Pardon the musical pun, but I’ve strung you along quite enough. As fascinating as this narrative is, it’s time to describe the engineering principle that gave the cat piano its functionality, and I have to say, it’s unseemly at best, completely cruel at worst. As described by Kircher, the instrument itself had compartments for the cats in the chorus, including a sheath dedicated to each of the cats’ tails. When the keys were played, hammers with sharpened ends drove the spikes into the corresponding tails.