Nature: The World’s First Source of Music

Both excerpts from The Great Animal Orchestra by Bernie Krause, and Soundscape – Tuning of the World by R. Murray Schafer exhibit similar thoughts on how the music is made up of the sounds in nature and our environment. However, Schafer expands on those thoughts and brings up the point that music is built off expressing one’s emotions.

Krause introduces sounds in nature as being the first music to have ever existed on Earth; water being the very first. He primarily discusses water and its deep roots in society from the beginning of time, to current studies on ocean life such as whale calls. I feel as though he wishes to convey that water is what links all life forms on Earth together. It is something we all have in common; we all need water in order to survive. He points out that although water is something that we all have in common, it sounds different and tells a different story anywhere you go in the world, or even the country. Water, and in turn nature, is therefore not only able to connect everyone, but provide a history to tell everyone who visits its shores.

Schafer on the other hand, although agreeing with nature being a part of music, also iterates that it can be created through emotion. He recognizes that music in Greek mythology had two sides: Athena versus Hermes. Athena creates a nomos due to her being so moved by the cries of Medusa’s sisters following her death, while Hermes constructed a lyre out of a turtle’s shell when he discovered that it could produce sound. The prior is music inspired by Athena’s feelings, and the latter utilizing logic and what was found around Hermes in nature. Schafer also points out that music is also capable of reflecting what is happening around us by mentioning that “vagaries of Richard Strauss are perfectly consistent with the waning of the […] Austro-Hungarian Empire” (Schafer 7) which bolsters his idea of emotion playing a significant part of composing music.

Humanizing Nature Through Sound

The Effect of Music on Plant Growth | Dengarden

In Murray Schafer’s “The soundscape: our sonic environment and the tuning of the world”, they discuss how the sounds of the world are changing, but more importantly how that effects “every corner of man’s life”. Because of this, Bernie Krause in “The Great Animal Orchestra”, writes about his mission to recreate the sounds of nature. Travelling around the world, Krause tries to capture important sounds of many cultures, as well as their significance. Combining these samples, Krause can make “natural” soundscapes representative of many areas.

To me, I see this is as quite a powerful tool to immerse someone in nature. Hearing the sounds of a place overwhelmed by the beauty of nature can be just as influential on your thought process of the world as actually seeing it, however, it is much easier to accomplish in practice. Society has a way of normalizing our destruction of nature, as it is often beneficial to those in power to alter the public’s perception to the extent of the destruction. However, given a much more personal experience with those natural places, as well as the education on what specifically is happening to them, could turn that tide. This is where I see an interesting idea with the application of this kind of work, using it to humanize nature. And this is exactly where Krause seems to be headed.

Krause’s work reminds me of a similar project done by a group called “Sound Builders”. They use the physical leaves of plants to create sound. To do this, they pin electrodes on two sides of the leaves and then transfer the electronic outputs into sound. While the process sounds quite harmful to the plant, the electrodes are only on for a brief period of time and has no effect on the plant’s health. Sound Builders then present their work as a way to educate the public on environmental sciences, similar to how I see the application of Krause’s work impacting communities.

Sound Builder’s project:

Picture from: https://usercontent2.hubstatic.com/13406415_f520.jpg

Sounds That Matter

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Though it may be hard to notice, the world is quickly getting louder, and the soundscape is turning into something it has never been before. R. Murray Schafer observes this in his book The Soundscape and implies a connection with this change in the earth’s sounds to the Anthropocene, and human activity in general. The dawn choruses of birds and the many sounds of forests are falling, while the sounds of machines and human influence are getting louder (I suppose this is somewhat contestable; Toyota Priuses are pretty quiet, for example). Schafer argues that this noisiness is detracting from are ability to truly appreciate the sounds which the world provides us with. Because the definition of music has shifted in recent decades to pretty much mean “a collection of sounds,” Schafer implores us to treat the sounds from the earth as music, because ignoring these sounds, as we have become accustomed to doing, can only make things worse. 

But these sounds nature provides us, which Schafer wants us to listen to, are gradually getting quieter. This is happening for a few notable reasons. For one thing, humanity’s implementation of machines and other such technology block out other sounds, and causing new, metallic sounds. Also, since humans are the primary cause of that is being called the “sixth extinction,” the sounds which we once enjoyed have literally disappeared, due to our elimination of entire species. Perhaps this is a reason in itself why Schafer wants us to listen for the sounds; we can try to preserve what’s still here.

Through all of the sounds, says Schafer, we are able to study and analyze the moods and events of various time periods, with political upheaval causing musicians to create emotional and angry music (not unlike what we see today), while times of peace produce calmer music. I assume there are ways to refute this claim, but I have noticed a significant change in tone and subject matter in music from the last few years. But listening to the sounds of our planet (that we produce and that exist whether or not we’re here) can give us insight into things bigger than ourselves, which we can use to hopefully create change in our behaviors and our ideas.

Nature and Society

In The Great Animal Orchestra, author Bernie Krause describe his attempts to recapture the “true” sounds of nature.  Much of the piece was Krause’s valorization of the beauty found in the “undisturbed” sounds of nature. Although Krause’s vivid and elegant description is very interesting, I think he might be mistaken about the “undisturbed” nature of these sounds. First of all, Krause uses sensitive microphones to pick up the sounds. Microphones which are more sensitive than the human ear. Besides that, Krause also need to use various microphones to record multiple samples and later uses “sound editing software to combine all the samples” (18). Krause writes about the sounds of nature as if they were a discovery. His travels across the world has led him to unearth the hidden sounds of nature. However, Krause is not discovering new sounds, he is creating them. Similar to a music producer, Krause is sampling different sounds together to create the “organic” whole of natural soundscapes.

What Krause and most of us forgets, is that our concepts of nature is socially constructed. It represents a society’s relationship with the natural world around it. When most of us live in dense urban centers, surrounded by nothing but concrete and asphalt, nature can appear as an exotic and alien thing, wholly separate from the artificially produced human world. As the German Marxist Karl Liebknecht correctly points out “the population of a city […] have been brutally torn from the natural mother soil on which mankind flourished” (par. 4). To understand nature as something which have been robbed from us implies a struggle for freedom. It implies a struggle not merely for survival, as much of the apocalyptic discourse surrounding climate change suggests, but also a struggle to freely define our own social relations and through it our relationship with nature. In short, our historic task continues to be the emancipation of human kind.  

1. Liebknect, Karl. “Speech on ‘Environmental Protections’.” MR Online, Monthly Review, 9 Oct. 2019, https://mronline.org/2019/10/09/speech-on-environmental-protections-by-karl-liebknecht/. 

drowning in Predictable chaos

Songs I listened to while writing this:
Everything – Healy
Birds, Pt. 1 – Chassol
Morning Dew – Matt Quentin

“Everything has melody, that’s the crazy thing. It has some sort of melody; it may be dissonant at times. But everything has tone if it has energy.” – Healy, from “Everything”

As I sat in Dream on Monroe late Tuesday evening, reading these articles, I couldn’t help but be distracted by cheerful laughter from the bar, the high pitch ringings of the multiple electronic signs, the faint mumbling from two separate tv channels, the clanking of metal oven doors and draws slamming closed, “Everything” by Healy playing in the headphones I had playing into my right ear only, and the crunch of thin crust resonating through my skull. As I started the Murray Schafer paper, the silent sound of the words I read passing through my mind only added to the chaos of sounds I was attempting to intake all at once. This has been a resounding depiction of my life for the past several weeks, one seeking out silence and solitude in order to focus but surrounding myself with noise to drown out the true distraction, human voices.
Just a few months ago, all the work I was invested in led me to the backcountry of Yosemite National Park where I found a unique silence. More than anything, I found peace of mind in the chaotic soundscape of nature where little is predictably cued, yet all sounds seem familiar and expected. In this chaotic soundscape, I found the ability to focus. Chaos created clarity.
As I sat in Dream, I couldn’t help but notice a stark difference in the chaotic soundscape I found myself in. While the sum of all things was unpredictable, each aspect was rhythmic, harmonic, and repetitive. Laughs were every few seconds, the high pitch electronic humming was constant, the commentators were high paces and relentlessly rhythmic, cars passed at a droning beat, and the clock ticked by, reminding me of the seconds I was wasting trying to read in the midst of this predictable chaos. Everything that ran through my ears was man-made. There was no wind, no water running, no rockfall or melting ice, no sound of silence. It was then I realized both how easy it had become for me to rely on this chaotic soundscape to drown out so many other distractions, yet how hard this soundscape has made it for me to find clarity of mind beyond time I spend working.

The natural soundscape, the undisturbed way of life provides dissonant beauty. It is inherently unpredictable, yet if soothes so easily. It has been human nature to create rhythm, order, and predictability, not only in sound and music, but in all aspects of life. These developments have led us to stray from the beauty of chaos, as we are not inherently comfortable not having control and understanding of our future. If there is a need to tie this all back to climate change, that is the notion. We are making the climate trajectory predictable, structured, and rhythmic. We have chosen to sacrifice a dissonant melody for one that is clear, despite its unpleasantness.