What Happens If You Play the Violin for Zoo Animals

by  HeartStrings, Sabine Gonelli, 21/01/2016

I had not been to a zoo for quite some time and was yearning to see my animal friends.

Zoo animals' lives are far from "natural" but I still like to visit the animals there. I very much see them as ambassadors for their cause. Zoos offer people ways to experience, observe and admire live animals beyond all these well beloved nature documentaries. Here is where we can not only see and hear them but also smell and sometimes touch them or otherwise interact with our co-creatures. It is a place where we can discover how connected we are through the mystery of life. I have seen it many times:  Humans need opportunities to connect emotionally to care, like in this video.

I respect if people avoid zoos. I hope they have not forgotten though, that in many cases we as humans have destroyed what is often called their "natural habitat". For instance let's look into the case of the orangutans. There is  little left to return these animals to.

Personally, I have cried my eyes out standing amidst the neverending lines of palm oil plantations in Borneo. I felt angy and powerless, and in my despair even ridiculed myself  by screaming at the local indigenous people who I had befriended with: Why did they allow this to happen?!  Well, their villages got ploughed under, too. Together with the orangutan rainforest that is no more.

The thing was: I had always known that the rainforest is destroyed on a huge scale every day but I needed to experience it to really and deeply understand what it means to rip our planet apart this way. Luckily I am not the only one. Watch the very informative and most enjoyable palm oil journey of Harrison Ford here.

How is it possible that we are the reason for the degradation of orangutan habitat? Most people are not even aware that we simply consume it away. It is almost impossible to find processed food or cosmetic products that do not contain palm oil. Here is the list of disguise.  I still encourage everyone to be diligent in avoiding it, making your voice heard, and support NGOs which help orangutans or oppose palm oil. I hope a shift will come soon. It is urgent.

This doesn't mean I want all animals in zoos. Of course we have to give everything we can to keep them safe where they live. I just ask to be a bit more mindful with those "back to the wild" slogans with regard to zoos.

A palm oil consumer who doesn't want to go to the zoo for animal welfare concerns doesn't quite compute for me.

I was in a phase of my life where everything was about the violin

I was teaching violin at three schools and had a good number of private students as well so it was not a far cry to take my violin to Perth Zoo. Not quite sure what to expect I felt the strong urge to try and give something back to my cherished and beloved co-creatures with the healing sound of the violin, the instrument of the heart. Sometimes all these terrible news are just too much for me to cope with and I needed a positve outlet for all that frustration. I was on the quest for a way of apologizing for what we humans have done to animals and nature and thought I could try and do that by playing to the ambassadors that zoo animals are, representing all wildlife that I care so much about.

The response of these animals to my violin playing was the starting point of HeartStrings

So here is what happened:


My first audience was a family of White Cheeked Gibbons. When I started to play for them the female and her baby looked, but kept a safe distance until the male gibbon who came closer to inspect me signalled his “OK”. The whole family came closer and ended up sitting next to each other like the best behaved concert audience in the world, right behind the glass. They listened very attentively. There was not even the slightest noise on the other side of the display window while I played for them. The spell broke when other human visitors arrived at the scene but for a good 10 minute period my connection to these animals was most intense. I felt encouraged. What had just happened was quite overwhelming.

The Asian Small-clawed Otters were hyper excited. They stayed together very closely and slowly approached me, stood there for a few seconds and then jumped back into their pool as if choreographed. Their attention span was limited but breathtaking while it lasted.

The Little Penguins stopped their chatting, swimming and grooming. They kept their distance on land, stood beside one another and listened motionless. There was amazement on both sides of the glass wall. I had prepared to be ignored or even drowned in their noise because that is what I had experienced earlier with birds. Well, not with these little guys!

The Red Pandas were sleeping up in a big tree when I played my violin for them. I got a clement turn of head and acknowledgement of my presence but not more than that.



The Orangutans stayed busy while I played for them. They are probably used to getting all kinds of human attention and didn't seem to change their behaviour at all. I have to admit that I got to them rather late in the day. If I ever have the chance to play for orangutans again, I'll be there early in the morning.

Among many other animals the Southern White Rhinoceros, Spotted Hyena, Fennec Fox, Plains Zebras and Giraffes particularly touched me with their good mind to listening to my violin playing. They all stopped what they were doing, then there was a period of listening and deciding whether they would like it or not and then slowly coming closer and again just standing there to listen in stillness. I felt at peace with the world. It was wonderful.


I felt very honoured.

The only animals who could not stand my violin presence were the African Painted Dogs. They retreated to the furthest end of their enclosure and were nervous. I stopped playing after just a few notes. Dog's ears can't bear the high frequencies in the harmonics of violin sound. They were happy to see me moving on. I didn't take it personally.

The Asian Elephants were kept busy throughout the whole day by the zoo which made my endeavour a little bit difficult. When I finally got to play for them it was close before their bed time. They were waiting for the gates to open and in a quite relaxed mood.

When I started to play the two females showed signs of distress. They walked backwards and slightly flapped their ears. I stopped, then played again very softly.

At first these ladies stood close together and held each other by their trunks. Then they started to slightly sway from one pair of legs to the other, firstly still holding trunks then letting go of each other, becoming more and more at ease. At the end the elder female leaned against a wall with one of her front legs crossed over the other one. She gave me a very relaxed impression.

Meanwhile, the other elephant had extended her trunk so that it sat well on the ground. She just stood there, relaxed, and was obviously listening.

Again, I very much enjoyed our change of roles: It felt as if I was giving these elephants something back instead of taking (pleasure) as I normally do when visiting my animal co-creatures.

The key to playing your violin for animals

Playing the violin for animals is a way to connect with them and to acknowledge that they are special. Very closely observe them and have THEM in mind while you play. This is not about OUR ego as musicians. We are entering their space so we need to be respectful. Always accept and respond to their emotions. Soft and slow pieces were received best by most animals.

Some zoo keepers came and inquired about what I was doing. We often observed the animals together and after some bars into my playing I was approved to go on. Zoo keepers know their animals very well so be open to their opinion.

I think this otherwise wonderful Bach piece was not quite suitable for the elephants in this video. It is not absolutely clear to me if they really enjoy the music. I would have stopped playing or at least have given the elephants a chance to tune in. There is no harm in playing a few notes, stop, wait, and then try again. Maybe she did that and decided it was OK.


Due to the experimental nature of this zoo visit I did not take any pictures or videos of my animal audience. I could not have played at all if I would have felt like distressing more than entertaining but the response was so special…
I have started to take videos after this event. Work in progress... =)

Have fun discovering your personal violin-from-the-heart potential! Why not try and play for the birds in your garden?

Whatever your call - please share your experience and
leave a comment under the 'Selected Links'!

6 Comments on “

  1. Awesome! what a great idea Sabine!
    It would be wonderful to see some pictures or even videos of the animal reactions with own eyes of your next attempt!
    Maybe there are people who could assist you with filming and cutting so it’s easier to share this joy with even more people!
    Keep playing!

    1. Thanks Lukas,
      for sharing your thoughts.
      I know, videos would have been great but at the time of my zoo visit I didn’t even imagine how it would start me off!
      A filming person would be fantastic. Maybe next time. I am working on some videos that I took after my first animal-violin encounter at the zoo.
      They will find a place on my website. I’ll keep you updated!
      Cheers, Sabine

  2. Hallo Sabine,

    Gratuliere, Projekt ist gestartet und läuft, Seite und Fotos sehen prima aus, als wenig musikalischer Mensch kann ich zum Sound nichts kommentieren.
    Den Tieren etwas vorzuspielen hört sich nach crazy Austalia an, cool.

    Alles Gute und viel Erfolg


  3. I love the sound of the violin! I can almost visualise you playing your instrument while our animal co-creatures enjoying it (at least the ones who did) like in a poetic set up.

    Very well written post. I’d look forward to reading more about the violin 🙂

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