The cat piano is one of humanity’s most cherished memes, spanning nearly 500 years of recorded history. Videos of cats walking on keyboards are plastered all over the internet. But few people realize how many bizarre inventions have attempted to capture the cat’s meow within a musical instrument like the piano.
It's a good thing kitties have nine lives, because the history of cat pianos is riddled with pain. Since the earliest cat organ memes, inventors have drawn a kind of sadistic joy from making cats meow on command. These devices proposed methods that ranged from pulling on their tails to poking them with needles.
Historians debate whether these inventions have ever truly existed, or if images like the one above were merely for the lulz. In this article I’ll share the troubled history of cat organs and how they came to be replaced by cruelty-free alternatives like MeowSynth and Meowsic Toy Keyboard.
First, a quick prelude to a modular synth called the Furby Organ.
Table of Contents
Keyboard Cat, MeowSynth and the Meowsic Keyboard
Let's take it from the top. We live in an era of boundless cat memes. Nearly 15 years ago, the infamous Keyboard Cat meme went viral. This short video showed an orange tabby in a blue shirt playing a simple melody on a synth keyboard. Striking a chord for people around the world, the original YouTube video has garnered 70 million views alone.
But this article isn't really about cats playing piano. It's the story of a MIDI plugin called MeowSynth and the long history of musical cats that came before.
If you're not already familiar, MeowSynth is a VST from 2009 that simulated the sound of a crying cat. Whenever you press a key on your MIDI keyboard, the animated synth cat meows in that same pitch. Here's a quick overview of the app by one of our favorite YouTube creators, Levi Neha.
MeowSynth is a 32-bit plugin, which means its utility is pretty much limited to FL Studio at this point. You can work around this limitation with an app like Jbridge that makes 32-bit plugins available in modern DAWs that otherwise support 64-bit plugins only.
As if stepping in to fill the vacuum, a website similarly called Meowsynth.com lets visitors choose meow-lodies from a collection of popular songs. From what I can tell, there's no affiliation between this site and the original plugin company Knobster.
The MeowSynth plugin is nearly defunct and Dave Gurnell's website lacks any interactive element (other than song selection). Fortunately, there's the Meowsic toy keyboard. Silly as this thing may look, it may very well be the cat organ in its final form. Dozens of YouTube channels have covered the strange device and sing its praises.
Featuring a smiling cheshire grin of piano keys, the Meowsic keyboard comes packed with a number of virtual instruments including the most important one of all - a meowing cat sound.
So why is the world so obsessed with these meowing pianos? It turns out there's a strange and even haunting tale beneath it all. So now that we've had a bit of fun with the modern toys, let's turn back in time to explore their history.
Early origins: Cat organs of the 1500-1600s
The earliest known example of the cat organ traces back to 16th century Belgium. French writer Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin’s book Musiciana documents a story where the King of Spain visited Emperor Charles V in Brussels and witnessed a parade in the streets.
According to Juan Christoval Calvete, a historian who accompanied the King, a chariot was seen holding a young man in a bear costume. The bear played an organ whose pipes had been replaced by sixteen cages, holding a line of cats arranged by their body size and tone of voice. When a note on the keyboard was struck, it yanked on the appropriate cat’s tail with a string and they cried out in pain.
One hundred years prior, a notoriously cruel French King Louis XI had ordered the construction of a similar device called the pig organ. They were similarly arranged by size in order to produce sequentially higher pitches, but instead of pulling on the pig’s tails, the device used sharp spikes to stab them and evoke the squeals.
In 1650, the acclaimed Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher came out with a theory about the cat organ in his Musurgia Universalis. He described a depressed prince who seemed unable to be cured of melancholy, until witnessing a similar piano filled with cats. Instead of pulling on the cat’s tail, it used a small pin to prick them much like King Louis XI’s pig piano.
Scarlatti’s Cat Fugue: Paws on the piano
Musicians have drawn inspiration from cats walking on pianos for almost as long as the harpsichord has existed. In 1739, classical composer Domenico Scarlatti published a piece titled Fugue in G minor that violated all the normal rules of harmony at the time. The piece was affectionally nicknamed the Cat Fugue in years to come.
Legend has it that Scarlatti’s pet cat, Pulcinella, had a habit of walking across his keyboard and took interest in the sounds it would make. Other major composers like George Handel and Franz Liszt drew inspiration from the Cat Fugue in their own works.
In the 1920s, composer Zez Confrey wrote his award-winning Kitten on the Keys, after hearing his grandmother’s cat walk across her piano keyboard. This trend has continued into modern times, with famous pets like Nora the Piano Cat immortalized in fully orchestrated works like the CatCerto.
Early German psychiatry: Cat piano cures sadness
By the 1800s, artists and storytellers had already described designs for the cat piano in great detail. The German physician Johann Christian Reil published a book in 1803 that prescribed the performance of a cat piano for people suffering from melancholy.
Reil was one of the most famous medical scientists in Germany, known for prescribing remedies ranging from electroshock and ice baths to hot wax treatments. His influence was so important that he coined the term psychiatry in 1808 and the medical world has adopted it permanently to describe an entire branch of Western medicine.
That's right, let me run that back - the famous German guy who prescribed cat piano to depressed patients is the same person who made up the word psychiatry.
The cat organ, or katzenklavier, remained a fixture of German popular culture through the 1800s. It made illustrated appearances in the country’s most popular newspaper (Die Gartenlaube) and an in a satirical magazine (Kladderadatsch). No longer limited to the role of a psychiatric cure, the cat piano was embraced as a silly concept for families to enjoy around the dinner table.
Cats discovered inside an organ in New York
A hundred years later (early 1900s) a family of cats were discovered to be living in a church organ in New York. During a series of church services, they could be heard meowing in pain from the loud noise that was presumably disturbing them in their resting place.
The resonant tubes amplified the magic organ cat sounds, bringing the congregation into fits of laughter. Once again, their laughter was at the expense of the cats' pain. Poor little kitties.
Musical Mice, Meow Mix, and Jingle Cats
In 1971, Monty Python featured a skit called “musical mice” that replaced the cat piano with rodents. The performer used large mallets to smash their tails, evoking musical squeals to the melody of Three Blind Mice. Despite boos from the staged audience, the skit itself was a big hit. Terry Gilliam recreated the idea a second time in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, using human prisoners instead of cats or mice.
Coincidentally, Meow Mix made feline melodies popular again in 1974, using their singing pets to sell cat food in television commercials. The CIA went on to license the Meow Mix song for torturing and interrogating prisoners during the early 2000’s War on Terror. That’s not to be confused with the CIA’s Operation Acoustic Kitty, a $20M experiment planting microphones into the skull and fur of cats in order to spy on foreign agents.
Now to be fair, cat music isn’t always a tale of torture. Songwriter Mike Spalla took the christmas music market by storm in 1993 with his Jingle Cats album Meowy Christmas. According to interviews, Mike had brought his cat along for a recording session of Jingle Bells, who began meowing along with the music from within the vocal booth.
Then again, one journalist at the Phoenix New Times recalls curling up in a sweating ball at the horrifying memories of Jingle Cats. She goes as far as to say that “there is no form of Christmas music more accursed or debased than Jingle Cats”. So maybe I spoke to soon. Maybe there is no redeeming the cat piano.
The Cat Organ that brought Prince Charles to tears
Have you heard the expression that history repeats itself?
500 years ago, it was Emperor Charles who watched with glee as the tails of cats were pulled to create music. So we can’t escape the irony that BBC sound sculptor Henry Dagg brought Prince Charles of Wales to tears in 2010 with a modern performance of the cat organ.
Accompanied by an earnest piano performance of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Henry Dagg stood before the crowd with a row of squeaky toy cats and pinched them one at a time. Not only did he play the melody perfectly, but he did it with a straight face. As if resonating sympathetically across centuries of time, these magic organ cat toys had the entire royal court yard snickering uncontrollably.
Nick Cave and The Cat Piano animations
Just one year prior, in 2009, an animated short film titled The Cat Piano had been released featuring the voice of Australian singer songwriter Nick Cave. It’s unclear whether this was Dagg’s inspiration or if it was simply a coincidence.
That brings us through to the current era of musical cat memes. From sadistic kings to cat food companies, classical composers and modern synthesizers, there's little use denying the historical importance of the cat organ.
I hope you've enjoyed this tour de force of musical cat trivia. I'll leave you with this final short film dedicated to the cat piano by animator Yulia Sivtsova: