The Great Animal Orchestra (Book Review)

The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, by Bernie Krause, New York: Back Bay Books, 2012. 277 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

When George Berkeley posed the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” he apparently assumed that humans are the only sentient beings capable of hearing. Given the perpetual popularity of this eighteenth-century hypothetical, many are still convinced that audible events can only be confirmed in human ears. This anthropocentric view is often coupled with an equally condescending assumption that acoustic behaviors of birds, fish, insects and non-human mammals have just two basic functions: mating and territory. Aside from being psychologically reassuring—providing much-desired, yet difficult-to-substantiate, solace that the gap between human beings and “mere” creatures is unbridgeably wide—these beliefs betray our musical ignorance. As naturalist and musician Bernie Krause warns us in his provocative book, The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, “When it comes to natural sounds, there are few rules” (p. 59).

For forty-plus years, Krause has traveled the world recording and analyzing wild soundscapes. His archive includes over 4,000 hours of sound from more than 15,000 species. Captured at undisturbed locations, these chronicles reveal an aural aspect of natural selection. Contrary to what the untrained listener might suspect, the vast array of biological sounds did not come about arbitrarily. Rather, Krause explains, “each resident species acquires its own preferred sonic bandwidth—to blend or contrast—much in the way that violins, woodwinds, trumpets, and percussion instruments stake out acoustic territory in an orchestral arrangement” (p. 97). Krause calls this the “niche hypothesis,” or a partitioning process in which voices of a biome form unique sonic signatures that serve as terrestrial voiceprints or sound-marks. The nuanced audibles of each species accomplish specific functions: mating, protecting territory, capturing food, group defense, social contact, emotional cues, play, etc. From Krause’s vantage point, such sounds can be considered “musical” in the broad sense of being controlled patterns that exhibit structure and intent and are organized vertically (texture and layering) and horizontally (over time).

The impulse to find a niche may have also been a driving force of human music. Our forest-dwelling ancestors paid close attention to their native soundscapes, listening for signals in the rich textures of their habitats, finding distinct bandwidths to communicate with one another, and imitating the sounds of other species, both for play and practical purposes (like the hunt) (p. 89). From there, human cultures gradually developed the diverse sounds and sundry uses that comprise what we know as music.

Krause also opens our awareness to the multiplicity of sound sources on our planet. He proposes three distinct categories. The oldest is geophony: natural sounds springing from non-biological phenomena, such as wind, rainfall and bodies of water. All acoustically sensitive animals—including humans—evolved to accommodate the geophony, as “each had to establish a bandwidth in which its clicks, breaths, hisses, roars, songs, or calls could stand out in relation to nonbiological natural sounds” (p. 39). Animal sounds come in two types: biophony, or sounds emanating from nonhuman biological entities; and anthrophony, or human-generated sounds (physiological, controlled, electromechanical and incidental).

One of the implications of Krause’s work is that it can help evaluate the health of a biome. Not only can studying the acoustic community demonstrate the intrusion of foreign elements—i.e., human-made noise and the audible response of native creatures (silence, restlessness or alarm calls)—it can also indicate the diversity and vibrancy of the wildlife, or the absence thereof. Sadly, over a half of the wild habitats Krause has recorded no longer exist due to human encroachment—a reality discerned in part from the silencing of biophonic activity and the rise of anthrophonic noise.

These are but a few of the thought-provoking insights offered in The Great Animal Orchestra, a book enhanced by autobiographical stories, illustrations, online listening samples, and a reading group guide. To quote Jane Goodall, whose recommendation appears on the cover of the paperback edition, “[The book] speaks to us of an ancient music to which so many of us are deaf.”

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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