Shanthi lives in the National Zoo in Washington, DC. As her keeper Debbie Flinkman, says in NPR, she likes to devise different way to make noises:
“If a lock makes noise she’ll flip the lock repetitively. She will blow across the top of toys that we have drilled holes in.”
Flinkman tied a harmonica to the wall of Shanthi’s enclosure and the elephant took to blowing into it, “not usually a long ditty but it always ends in this really big sort of fanfare at the end, this big blowout,” as Flinkman describes it.
You can hear Shanthi performing herself in this video:
Shanthi’s predilection for the harmonica has led to questions of whether she is really making music and, indeed, about what music is: Is she just making sounds that she enjoys hearing? Are there certain sounds she’s trying to make, with rhythm and a beat?
Just such questions are the research focus of Dan Levitin, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at McGill University. He says in NPR that music is an “evolutionary accident,” suggesting that there is no real reasons humans need music.
But he also notes that music serves some purpose. When people play music together, oxytocin — “the bonding hormone that’s released when people have an orgasm together” — is released, says Levitin. Could music play a role in helping us all to get along? Levitin tells NPR:
So the idea is that there’s no primate society that I know of that has more than 18 males in the living group because the rivalries cause the groups to break apart and there’s too much fighting. But human societies of thousands of members have existed for thousands of years. And the argument is that music, among other things, helped to defuse interpersonal tensions and smooth over rivalries.”
Music, that is, plays some role in expressing and mediating emotions and difficult — potentially aggressive, perhaps — tensions.
The Smithsonian Magazine says that Shanthi is making up songs, having figured “out how to manipulate the instruments with her trunk to make different sounds.” Asian elephants are “known to be very intelligent” and an endangered species. Elephants at the National Elephant Institute in Thailand have been taught to pick up a paintbrush and paint on canvas.
Who knows what Shanthi might produce given other instruments to try her trunk on?
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