"Cat piano" sounds like the headline of an adorable video of cats running amuck on piano keys. Unfortunately, the reality is much more grim, and thankfully it never actually came to fruition. The cat-piano (cat organ), or Katzenklavier, was the brutal brain-child of musicians in the 17th century. The idea involved a literal piano made of cats; that is, the cats' howls were to serve as the musical notes. A painful spike attached to a particular key on the piano would press down on one of the cats's tails, causing it to cry out in pain.
Fortunately, historians classify the Katzenklavier as a merely hypothetical instrument. Unfortunately, it is not the only instance in which animals were thought of to be tortured in order to provide services for humans. The turnspit dogs of medieval England, for example, didn't get to exist only hypothetically.
Although the origins of the Katzenklavier are not exactly known, it is assumed that it came about as a way to entertain a bored monarch. In 1650, a scholar named Athanasius Kircher wrote:
"In order to raise the spirits of an Italian prince burdened by the cares of his position, a musician created for him a cat piano....The result [of the arrangement of cats] was a melody of meows that became more vigorous as the cats became more desperate. Who could not help but laugh at such music? Thus was the prince raised from his melancholy."
Right, because who can't help but laugh at animals screaming in pain? It seems Kircher and the Italian prince had a twisted sense of humor.
In an article on the katzenklavier for Mental Floss, Lucas Reilly delves deeper into the horrid theoretical instrument, making explicit just how horrible it would have been for the cats enlisted into its service:
"Imagine a row of eight cats tightly packed in individual cages, wedged along a keyboard. Their tails are pinned down and pulled taut. With the touch of a key, a mechanism slams a nail down into the cat’s tail. So when a keyboardist plays a tune, the cats—which are arranged according to the pitches of their meows—yowl together in pain, crying out in musical harmony."
That's clearcut animal abuse by today's standards.
The good news: the Katzenklavier is only a hypothetical instrument. The bad news: the pig organ is not. In the 1400s, King Louis XI of France requested "a concert of swine's voices." Abbot de Beigne complied with these orders by creating an instrument nearly identical in theory to the cat organ. Pigs were lined up like a piano, and their rear ends were struck by spikes, forcing them to squeal out in pain. In the 19th century, a similar instrument was invented in Ohio: it was called the porko-forte. Although the pun is clever, the instrument is horrid and inhumane.
Cats won't even meow or cry on pitch in the best of circumstances, so it's no wonder that in 1870, it was noted that the cat piano wouldn't work simply because it would be impossible to recreate recognizable songs. Maybe this is one of the reasons the idea never took flight; regardless, cats all around the world are lucky they can't hold a tune.