Civilizing Soundscapes

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Suggestions of music are present everywhere in nature. The rustling of leaves, the babbling of brooks, the pattering of rain, the howling of wolves, the singing of birds, the chirping of crickets. Such sounds may be the original impetus for human musical creativity. They are not yet compositions, but hints of musical form, whispers of motifs, invitations for sonic expansion. The receptive ear recognizes and collects them. The brain organizes, imitates and embellishes them. The imagination combines them with other tonal elements. They are made into music.

This natural history of music is a dominant narrative in the theoretical literature. Mark Changizi, an evolutionary neurobiologist, paints a compelling portrait in Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (2011), and Bernie Krause, a prolific archivist of natural soundscapes, shares decades of meticulous research in The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places (2012). In addition to tracing musical inclinations to the non-human environment, these and related studies confirm the broader instinct of human beings to turn nature into culture.

Culture is prepared more than it is created. Available materials are manipulated to fit our needs, fashioned to meet our tastes, adapted to serve our ends. In the process, we carve a place for ourselves on the planet and gain a semblance of control over our surroundings. What Claude Lévi-Strauss famously wrote about food preparation applies to all aspects of human civilization: it is the continuous effort of transforming the raw into the cooked. Nature provides, we concoct.

The culinary view of culture is particularly apt when the subject is music. Musicians sometimes call their influences a stew, composers cook up new works, improvisatory players sizzle, musical choices are likened to a buffet. Implicit in these gastronomical comparisons is recognition that, like meals made from scratch, music involves measuring, mixing and preparing ingredients.

Of course, as cultures advance and humanity increasingly separates itself from the untamed world, pure sonic resources are harder to come by. Music becomes less an imitation of nature and more an imitation of other music. But we nevertheless remain susceptible to natural influences. Just as the landscape offers up an array of edible material, so does the soundscape offer audible material waiting to become music. Musical potential is detected in the many-voiced environment; musical possibilities exist in the listener’s mind. The organic substance is harvested, organized and repackaged in endless ways for human expression, reception and appreciation. Sounds are made civilized.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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One thought on “Civilizing Soundscapes

  1. Pingback: Civilizing Soundscapes | Stan Stewart's Blog

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