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Learning to Play the Katzenklavier, a 17th Century Piano That Slashed Kittens With Sharpened Nails

Apparently, the sound of screaming kittens was music to the ears of 17th-century music theorists.

If you're like me, you're a slightly overweight, devastatingly charming Jew who’s been diagnosed with ADHD before entering kindergarten. To cope with your “behavioral problems” and “short attention span,” you’ve run the pharmaceutical gamut from Ritalin and Wellbutrin to Adderall and Vyvanse.

If only 19th century German psychiatrist Johann Christian Reil was still around to treat today's hyperactive youth. In an 1803 manual on the treatment of mental disorders, Dr. Reil prescribed that the “oft-distracted” be forced to watch a concert preformed on the Katzenclavier (translation: “cat piano”) as therapy.


A wood engraving of this evil instrument from La Nature, 1883.

Here’s Reil’s description of the machine:

"An octave's worth of cats arranged in a row with their tails stretched behind them. And a keyboard fitted out with sharpened nails would be set over them. The struck cats would provide the sound. A fugue played on this instrument--when the ill person is so placed that he cannot miss the expression on their faces and the play of these animals--must bring Lot's wife herself from her fixed state into conscious awareness…"

This "sadist's synth" was invented by the German Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher some three hundred years before Kraftwerk. Kircher believed the harmony of music reflected the divine proportions of the universe. He had a bunch of other crazy and sometimes brilliant ideas about music - he invented the Aeolian Harp, which is sort of a complicated wind chime, and worked on early theories about transmitting music to remote places. So in a way, he sort of invented satellite radio too.

As far as anyone knows, nobody's ever constructed a true Cat Piano, but British sound sculptor Henry Dagg put together a humane version using squeaky toys. At a 2010 garden party, his performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” made Prince Charles chuckle like a fat-cat nobleman, check out this video: