Category Archives: nature

In Birds as in Humans?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

David Rothenberg concludes Why Birds Sing with an answer to the question implied in the book’s title: “For the same reason we sing—because we can. Because we love to inhabit the pure realms of sounds.” This notion is reminiscent of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s application of funktionslust—“pleasure taken in doing what one does best”—to impressive animal displays. In both cases, the pleasure is not merely frivolous or “for itself,” but an evolutionary adaptation that increases the likelihood of survival. As with theories of musical development in early humans—from Darwin’s sexually selected mating songs to Joseph Jordania’s “battle trance,” in which repetitious beats prepared our prehistoric ancestors for the hunt—there appears to be a mechanistic basis for sonic aesthetics.

One of the refreshing aspects of Rothenberg’s work on bird song (as well as whale song and bug rhythm) is his apparent embrace of the pejorative “anthropomorphizer.” A musician and philosopher, he compares structural and functional aspects of human and avian songs, and freely speculates about links between them. He is no stranger to criticism from the scientific community: “Scientists who say they are investigating what actually occurs in nature caution that musicians and poets tend to hear what they want to hear, to extract some human meaning out of the world’s alien inscrutability. Musicians remain enthralled by what seems unassailably beautiful about the sounds of birds, whether akin to noise music or dulcet melodies.”

Is there common ground between the two camps? Can we, as primatologist Frans de Waal advocates, avoid “gratuitous anthropomorphism” without conducting “linguistic castrations”? More to the point, can bird song reveal anything about our own songs?

Research on bird mimics offers intriguing possibilities. A brief report by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology summarizes several explanations for this behavior. In northern mockingbirds, which can learn upwards of 200 songs, mimicry is likely a sign of fitness. Females seem to prefer males who sing more songs, and adding tunes to the repertoire—from other birds and environmental sounds—can give a mating advantage. Similarly, male marsh warblers pick up songs from wintering grounds in Africa and bring them back to Europe—presumably to impress potential mates. Human virtuosi and sophisticates have similar allure.

Other birds use mimicry to fit in. Indigobirds, for example, are brood parasites that lay eggs in the nests of other species. Chicks learn the begging calls of the host to blend in and get fed. The female thick-billed euphonia uses alarm calls of other species to solicit help in defending her nest from predators. Assimilating songs of the “in-crowd” and using sounds of the “other” to gain their sympathy—these, too, have human analogues.

Occasionally, bird mimicry can also go awry. There are numerous cases of birds learning the wrong songs, such as a vesper sparrow singing songs of the Bewick’s wren and a common yellowthroat singing a chestnut-sided warbler song. These hapless mimics often go unpaired. For humans, engrossment in “uncool” music has a comparable effect.

Hard-nosed scientists caution against drawing parallels between humans and animals—especially distant relatives like birds. Without doubt, there are significant limits to such comparisons. At the same time, the distance provides room for reflection. The immediacy and ubiquity of music in human life—not to mention its labeling as “entertainment”—can obstruct our awareness of its functional basis. The scientific approach to bird song encourages us to ponder like traits in our own music cultures.

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

Advertisements

Art is Not Life

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Art is not life. Although woven into life’s intricate tapestry, artistic expression stands apart from the messy details and fluid meanderings of worldly experience. Even the most elaborate artwork—be it a novel, film, symphony, or painting—is simplistic compared to the overwhelming complexities of an average day. Poetry, both calculated and free-flowing, bypasses the vagaries of flatly spoken words, and all the “uhs” and “ums” that come with them. Poets supplant natural speech with measured syllables, crafted imagery, thoughtful word choices, and detours from standard syntax and grammar. Singers follow suit: their words are crafted into clean and fluid phrases; their “speech” is regimented into meter and tonal intervals. The focus is narrowed, the fat is trimmed, the message is tightly conveyed.

This essential quality of art is illustrated by its opposite. In 1951, University of Kansas psychologist Roger Barker and co-author Herbert F. Wright published One Boy’s Day: A Specimen Record of Behavior, chronicling a fourteen-hour span in the life of a mid-western boy. Eight researchers took turns following the boy, recording his minute-by-minute activities at home, school, and play. 7:08 AM: “He came out of the bathroom carrying a bottle of hair oil.” 8:24 AM: “He tossed a stone in the air and swung, but accidentally clipped a flag pole.” No theoretical approach was offered or suggested, just 435 pages of unadorned verbatim notes. Barker expected scientists to enthusiastically examine the raw data, breaking it down and interpreting it in various directions. But the book flopped. Readers—both scientists and laypeople—had little interest in trees without a view of the forest.

Artistic representations avoid life’s tedious details. According to musicologist Curt Sachs, “Art denaturalizes nature in order to raise it to a higher, or at least a different, plane.” This applies well to music. Unlike the ever-ticking clock, musical pieces are set within limited durations (“The Song that Never Ends” perhaps notwithstanding). The self-enclosed architecture of musical form contrasts with the convoluted tangles of the natural world. Musical lines, whether monophonic or hyper-polyphonic, are cherry-picked from infinite sonic possibilities. In both vocal and instrumental music, there is an unnatural clarity of intentions and ideas. Stereotyped modes, phrases, devices, and figurations replace the murkiness and gray areas of real life.

The foregoing discussion is summarized in Picasso’s famous saying: “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.” Our attraction to art stems from its distinction from natural processes and mundane human affairs. Without this fundamental separation, there can be no art.

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

Anthropophony

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Musician and naturalist Bernie Krause identifies two categories of organism-derived sounds: biophony, sounds created by non-human animals, and anthropophony, sounds produced by human beings. Some of these sounds are “musical” in the inclusive sense of displaying structured and intentional patterns that unfold over time. Precisely which sounds fit under this broad definition is debatable. However, on a basic level, we are intuitively attentive to musical sounds around us, both creaturely and human-made. What is perhaps less obvious—and more fundamental—is the extent to which our sense of music is physiologically derived.

This anthropogenic (human-born) appreciation centers on two essential musical elements: rhythm and melody. Both originate with inborn “instruments.” Heartbeats and breathing lay the foundations of rhythm. The voice sets the template for melody. As individuals mature and cultures progress, these internal mechanisms are translated into external instruments, which are themselves imitations and expansions of the organ-instruments within.

Rhythmic awareness begins in the womb. The underlying neural structures of hearing develop early in utero. By the end of the third trimester, a fetus can distinguish a wide range of frequencies. This includes her own heart rate, which beats 120 to 160 times per minute, and her mother’s, which beats 60 to 80 times per minute. When the infant is born, the tempo of breathing is added to the mix. As the child develops, rhythmic exposure and experimentation are diversified: rocking, clapping, banging, shaking, walking, stomping, dancing. It is no coincidence that excited music is fast-paced, mimicking quick breaths and heartbeats, while relaxed music is slow-paced, mimicking calm breaths and heartbeats. Techno, dirges, marches, meditations, and all manner of musical styles play off these natural rhythms.

Similarly with melody. The mother’s voice, which also resonates in the womb, is our first introduction to melodic patterns. Newborns show a preference for music (organized sound) over noise (confused sound), and for vocal music over instruments. Mothers instinctively communicate through “motherese”—high-pitched, sliding, infant-directed intonations—which, through exaggeration, reinforces characteristics of the native language. The infant, in turn, babbles in language-patterned speech-song long before she can form words. These verbal and verbal-imitative vocables set the framework of melody, both sung and instrumental. In every culture, melody is deeply rooted in the phrasing, inflections, and articulations of the spoken vernacular.

We cannot escape the physiological/anthropogenic basis of music perception and production. Rhythmic and melodic sense are born with us. Our heart, breath, and voice invariably inform which sounds—human and non-human—we hear as music, and which ones we do not.

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

Nature’s Soundtrack

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Art is conventionally portrayed as a reflection of life. This is understood both in the inward sense of expressing an artist’s feelings, and in the outward sense of depicting the world in which the artist lives. No matter how abstract the design, art is thought to be an analog of reality. This conception has obvious limits. While it is true that the creative process is frequently sparked by life situations and environmental influences, momentary concerns and artistic output are not always in alignment.

In his 1937 essay, “Fictions That Have Shaped Musical History,” Alfred Einstein deconstructed the old canard that art must mirror life. Art, he reminded us, is just as likely to reflect the times as it is to flee from them. He proved the point with Renaissance music, which exudes an aura of balance and harmony without any trace of struggle or discord. It is easy to forget that this musical style developed against the backdrop of an agitated world—a Europe that saw feudalism give way to the middle class, religious reformations and counter-reformations, and political powers vying over the New World. Rather than record this unrest, Renaissance polyphony projected a mood of order and peaceful resolution. It was an artistic ideal fundamentally at odds with reality.

Einstein tied this phenomenon to painterly portrayals of the natural world, which typically imbue the environment with an idealized essence. Our view of nature is powerfully and unconsciously shaped by such art. Rembrandt’s attention to half-lit rooms heightens our focus on the half-lit rooms around us. Constable’s English landscapes inform how we see real-life countrysides. Einstein went so far as to claim, “We become aware of natural things only when a great artist has first seen them for us and has given them the form that we see” (emphasis added).

This observation is, one would hope, overstated. We assume we can appreciate nature without the guiding brushstrokes of the painter. Still, we cannot deny art’s potential to color our vision.

Musical examples of this are plentiful. Generally, nature-inspired pieces translate stereotyped features of the natural world into abstract sounds. Sometimes, the impressionistic tones become so ingrained that gazing upon a scene brings the music to mind. Sunrises stir the “morning” theme from Rossini’s William Tell Overture. Falling snowflakes evoke Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Snowflakes.” The American wilderness conjures passages from Copland’s oeuvre. Flowing rivers call up Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz” (as do floating spaceships, thanks to 2001: A Space Odyssey). Likewise, hearing these pieces can immediately trigger the associated images.

Importantly, such music is, by definition, additive: it does not actually exist in the phenomenon it depicts. Thus, more than simply mirroring reality, it sways our perception of it. In this subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) way, our awareness of nature is at least partly in the hands of artists.

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

Song to Speech

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The acquisition of language in human infants usually begins with song. Mothers and other caregivers address infants in a singsong version of the native tongue, known variously as infant-directed speech, musical speech, and motherese. Pitch contours are exaggerated, phrasings are overemphasized, and stress patterns are overstated. Sounds are repeated, vocal pitch is high, vowels are exaggerated, tones range widely, and tempo is relaxed. More than the vocabulary itself, these extra-linguistic qualities set the foundation for language development.

The central ingredients of infant-directed speech, pitch and rhythmic structure, are also the essential elements of song. It is thus no coincidence that the singing of lullabies and playsongs is also a human universal. Such songs are a natural outgrowth or twin sibling of motherese, and, like musical-speech, their impact is more emotive than linguistic. Long before the child understands the meaning of words, she detects and imitates these vocal patterns of expression. Singing comes before speech.

These observations are familiar to anyone with child-rearing experience. They are about as revelatory as a step-by-step description of diaper changing. However, new research suggests that the connection between song and speech development runs deeper than previously intuited.

A massive study involving over a hundred international researchers, nine supercomputers, and the genomes of forty-eight species of birds recently culminated in the publication of twenty-eight articles. Among the findings are genetic signatures in the brains of songbirds that correspond to the genetics of human speech.

Humans and songbirds undergo a similar progression from “baby talk” to complex vocalizations, and both learn vocal content from their elders. This is something shared with only a few other species (“vocal learners,” like dolphins, sea lions, bats, and elephants), and makes us unique among the primates (the grunts of old and young chimps sound basically identical). What the new research shows is that humans and songbirds share fifty-five genes in the vocal-learning regions of the brain. Thus, even as the ability to vocalize developed independently in these species, it has similar molecular underpinnings.

Scientists hope to use this data to better understand and treat human speech disorders. (People cannot be subjected to the same experiments as birds.) There are also implications in the realm of music. Ethnomusicologists often claim that music is as important to humans as speech—a view drawn from the cross-cultural use of musical sounds in asserting individual and collective identity, conveying and retaining information, expressing and receiving emotional signals, and a host of other functions. “We need music to be human” is the discipline’s unofficial slogan. The fact that a child is first exposed to musical speech and first takes to musical babbling supports the notion of music as a human fundamental. New discoveries connecting bird songs and human speech could bolster that position. On a genetic level, it seems, singing and speaking are essentially variants of the same thing.

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

Simulated Silence

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Our quietest surroundings are brimming with sound. The modern world is cluttered with humming freeways, droning light bulbs, vibrating appliances, buzzing electrical wires, and countless other incessant noises. These acoustic waves are so constant that we tend to block them out. But if we listen closely in a quiet bedroom or library, there they are (around 30 decibels worth). Likewise, remote habitats free of humanity’s sonic stamp—which are few and far between—are home to a variety of natural sounds. Absolute silence is simply not a feature of our planet.

The foreignness of pure quiet is on full display at Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis, a location certified by Guinness as the world’s quietest place. The lab’s anechoic (echo-free) chamber absorbs 99.9 percent of sound, with its mesh flooring, double-walls of concrete and steel, and lining of fiberglass acoustic wedges. Manufacturers use the chamber to gauge the volume of switches, triggers and other components of their products.

Founder Steven Orfield challenges visitors to sit in the chamber with the lights off for as long as they can. Most give up before twenty minutes; no one has lasted longer than forty-five. Orfield himself struggles to endure beyond the half-hour mark. The reason for this is that the brain, so used to filtering out environmental sounds, turns inward. It starts picking up the pumping heart, pulsating lungs, digestive gurgles, and creaking joints. The effect is so disorienting that participants invariably tap out. Absolute silence disturbs absolutely.

The anechoic chamber proves that there is no escaping sound. Even when auditory stimuli are sucked from our surroundings, we have the hubbub within. Thus, the ordinary quiet we long for is not dead silence, but relative silence. It is the absence of grating, high-decibel, out-of-place and otherwise unwelcomed noises. Relative silence is highly coveted in part because it is rare: not only is the atmosphere filled with subtle rumblings, it is also host to noticeable sonic intrusions.

One way to create a gratifying impression of silence is by contrasting attention-grabbing sounds with sudden stillness. This is best accomplished with music. Minimally defined, music is the art of arranging sound and silence—that is, tones and spaces between tones. Of course, the juxtaposition of structured sound and calculated quiet is more pronounced in some pieces than others, as the tempo and spirit of the music allows for longer or shorter rests.

However, in almost all cases there is room to prolong the moment immediately following the music, thereby creating the perception of silence. Such potent pauses occur whenever audiences hold their applause after a piece concludes, and in ceremonial settings when there are breaks between song and spoken word. Whether the music ceases abruptly or gradually fades into nothingness, it sets the stage for a pleasing audible quiet rarely discerned in our day-to-day lives.

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

Music of the Squares

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Humans are vertically symmetrical beings. The skeleton provides scaffolding for mirror images on either side of an invisible divide. In both body and face, the average person exhibits an essentially balanced figure: two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs, and so on. And the more evenly proportioned, the better: cultures throughout the world view exceptionally symmetrical faces as the most beautiful. (This facial preference is also observed in some non-human animals, including various insects and birds.) Contrastingly, the more excessive the deviation, the more unattractive a face is thought to be. In global myths and popular culture, exaggerated asymmetry is a common feature of monstrous creatures.

Attraction to symmetry in conspecifics has a biological basis. Symmetry is an indicator of fitness: animals that are more properly developed have more symmetry in the body and face. A sound exterior is an indication of a sound interior. (Even the pheromones of highly symmetrical men are more attractive to women than those of less symmetrical men.) Intuitive detection of biological fitness underlies the more general association of symmetry with sturdiness, strength, and security.

In the wide world of art, symmetry is fundamental in works ranging from the sculptures of ancient Greece to the architecture of Imperial China to the poetry of Dr. Seuss. Musically, the desire for balance is most clearly represented in four-bar phrasing, which has dominated Western music since at least the Classical period.

Almost every folk, popular, and art melody consists of four-measure phrases grouped with other four-measure phrases (usually in eight- to sixteen-bar form). This is true of melodies as varied as “Yankee Doodle,” “Ode to Joy,” “Kalinka,” “Hava Nagila,” and “Wrecking Ball.” Virtually any song that springs to mind fits into this square structure. Indeed, four-bar patterns are so natural that, even when composers expand the phrasing with additional bars or extra beats between phrases, they typically even them out through repetition or tagged on measures.

The ubiquity of four-square melodies is not merely a product of collective cultural conditioning. Rather, it shares organic roots with the biological affinity for symmetry. Just as a balanced figure signals strength and reliability, so does a symmetrical tune evoke comfort and stability. The limited appeal of modernist music, which among other things rejects conventional phrasing, further emphasizes this point. Our ears are endlessly pleased by four-bar patterns. To update a Shakespearian phrase: “But hark, what music? . . . The music of the squares. . . Most heavenly music!”

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