Tag Archives: Animals

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.

Funktionslust, Birdsong and Beauty

Jonathan L. Friedmann, PhD.

Ethology, the biological study of animal behavior, concerns itself primarily with uncovering survival advantages in animal activities. Balancing a desire to find purpose in animal behavior and avoid the sin of anthropomorphism, ethologists refrain from ascribing emotions or extraneous pleasures to non-human species. What appears to the untrained observer as a creative act or outpouring of feeling is reduced to a survival impulse or an instinctive behavior. It is, of course, wise to keep from seeing too much of ourselves in other animals. Our tendency to anthropomorphize everything around us says less about reality than it does about ourselves. Yet strict adherence to the ethologist’s code can create undue distance. As Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson asks in his controversial bestseller, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals: “If humans are subject to evolution but have feelings that are inexplicable in survival terms, if they are prone to emotions that do not seem to confer any advantage, why should we suppose that animals act on genetic investment alone?”

This question is all the more penetrating given the impressive spectacles exhibited by many species. A gibbon swinging fervently from branch to branch, a dolphin thrusting itself out of the water, a cat hunting backyard critters for sport. The German language has a word for such behavior: funktionslust, meaning “pleasure taken in doing what one does best.” This, too, is thought to be adaptive. Pleasure derived from an activity increases an animal’s proneness to pursue it, thus increasing the likelihood of survival. A gibbon who spends extra time swinging in the trees is better fit to flee leopards and snakes when they attack.

But is that all there is to it? Masson points out that a loving animal (again, a controversial concept) may leave more offspring, making lovingness a survival trait. But the same animal may also provide excessive care to a disabled (and therefore doomed) offspring, exposing itself to hazards in the process.

The presumed practicality of funktionslust is further challenged by the performance of songbirds: the roughly 4,000 species of perching birds capable of producing varied and elaborate song patterns. To the standard scientist, the sounds these birds produce—no matter how inventive—serve the basic purposes of establishing territory and advertising fitness to potential mates. But some researchers argue that survival alone cannot account for the amount or variety of imitation, improvisation and near-composition evident in birdsong, nor the seemingly arbitrary times and circumstances in which the songs are often heard.

David Rothenberg and other birdsong experts see this music-making as approaching pure funktionslust, or pleasure derived from a native ability exceeding any evolutionary purpose. In his book Why Birds Sing: A Journey into the Mystery of Bird Song, Rothenberg proposes that songbird patterns rival human music in terms of structure, aesthetics, expressiveness, interactiveness and extra-practical life enhancement. A philosopher and jazz clarinetist who “jams” with songbirds in the wild, Rothenberg has been accused of the double infractions of anthropomorphism and evaluating birdsong with the bias of a musician. In his defense, he concedes that birds, not people, are the arbiters of their own songs, and only they can know what their repertoires mean to other birds. But he calls it art nonetheless, quoting Wallace Craig: “Art is a fact and after all it would be rather ridiculous from our evolutionistic ideology to deny the possibility that something similar may occur in other species” (“The Song of the Wood Peewee,” 1943).

Following this argument, we might deduce that songbirds experience beauty in their songs. This proposition harmonizes with the work of Denis Dutton, a philosopher of art who posits an evolutionary basis for the human perception of artistic beauty (The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution). Dutton identifies Acheulean hand axes as the earliest hominid artwork. Prevalent from 500,000 to 1.2 million years ago, these teardrop carvings have been located in the thousands throughout Asia, Africa and Europe. This sheer number and the lack of wear on their delicate blades suggest they were not used for butchering, but for aesthetic enjoyment. Indeed, they remain beautiful even to our modern eyes. The reason for this, explains Dutton, is that we find beauty in something done well. We are attracted to the meticulousness and skill evident in the axes. They satisfy our innate taste for virtuosic displays in the same way as well-executed concertos, paintings and ballets. Beauty is in the expertise.

If this attraction existed among our prehistoric ancestors, why not in songbirds? Taking funktionslust in a logical direction, might we assume that songbirds sing for the joy of it, and that their skilled displays feed aesthetic yearnings of other songbirds? These questions point to a possible compromise, in which animal behavior retains its evolutionary explanation and art finds evolutionary justification outside of the drive to survive.

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

Comfort Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Contact with the new and returning to the familiar are common occurrences among listeners of music. During the course of an average day and through the duration of an average life, a person is exposed to countless doses of music. Music is all around: on television, online, on the radio, on cellphones, in the grocery store, in children’s mouths, in our own heads. Previously unheard material is always within access, whether it comes to us through active consumption or passive reception. And, because music is such a longstanding and boundlessly varied form of expression, no pair of ears will ever hear it all.

There is some attraction in music’s apparent infiniteness. The appetite for the exotic, which exists in most people to a greater or lesser degree, can always feed upon new musical flavors. Yet, while much is gained from nibbling on diverse sounds, listeners eventually return to playlists of a much smaller size and scope. These individualized compilations are as distinct as the people who treasure them, and include selections of personal significance. The pleasure and assurance derived from such music is immediate, reliable and profound. It is audible comfort food.

Furthering the culinary analogy, the pull of familiar music has been likened to a hungry American traveling abroad. Native eateries have a certain appeal, offering unusual recipes and a doorway into local folkways. But for many tourists, restaurants serving familiar dishes are even more alluring. When navigating strange surroundings, the taste of home can simulate a sense of stability. A McDonald’s hamburger helps to “normalize” cities as disparate and anxiety inducing as Paris and Hong Kong.

The same occurs each time a person hears well-liked music. Recognizable sound patterns mitigate the complexities and uncertainties of existence. Of course, personal preference is the determining factor regulating which sounds bring this relief. But the effect is rooted much deeper than taste.

Researchers observe that when foreign noises are introduced into a wild biome, animals exhibit restlessness and other signs of distress. Once natural sounds are restored to purity, the reactions fade away. In a similar and similarly basic way, the music we cherish provides an antidote to unwelcome noises, both literal and metaphorical. Having a special attachment to certain sounds is less about stubbornness or a fear of change, and more about seeking refuge from the clutter and stress that confront us daily. Our curiosity appreciates the exotic, but our nerves rely on the familiar.

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

Music in Animals

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music has always been thought of in human terms. We detect and respond to certain sounds as music. We set aesthetic parameters within which those sounds are assessed. We decide where to place the sounds on the spectrum of genres. We determine which sounds we like and which ones we do not. This process is unconscious and automatic: we naturally distinguish musical from other sounds and label them as this or that quality and type. From an anthropological perspective, humans are the only creatures capable of this brand of discernment. We have convinced ourselves that of all the animals on the planet, we are the musical judges.

Semiologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez summed up the conventional view: “[I]t is a human being who decides what is and is not musical, even when the sound is not of human origin. If we acknowledge that sound is not organized and conceptualized (that is, made to form music) merely by its producer, but by the mind that perceives it, then music is uniquely human.” Thus, even when we hear music in a cricket’s chirp or rustling leaves, it is us—not the phenomenon itself—that makes music out of the sounds. There is, however, a growing body of research that challenges this basic assumption.

Music can be defined as the purposeful arrangement of sounds with relation to pitch, rhythm and tonality. The organization and appreciation of this information are widely held as human capacities. But animals such as whales emit songs displaying human-equivalent rhythms, phrase lengths and compositional form; and birdsongs include pitch variances and rhythmic patterns compatible with human musical expression.

Scientists have long presumed that these and other non-human animal sounds serve only biological functions, such as mating, and are not received as art. It is through our ears that they are anthropomorphized into music. Yet some experts, like Cornell neurobiologist Ron Hoy, are inclined to consider that animals experience music the way we do.

There is a minor field of science called zoomusicology, which studies the musical sounds and perceptions of animals. In addition to discovering what appears to be an aesthetic attraction to species-specific sonic stimuli, researchers have shown that certain animals have clear reactions to human-made music. For instance, one study found that Java sparrows prefer Bach versus Schoenberg. An experiment with carps suggests that they enjoy baroque music more than the songs of John Lee Hooker. Work done with lab rats indicates that classical pieces that are “rodentized” (sped up and adjusted to the hearing range of rodents) have an enriching effect on their behavior.

The most provocative implication of this research is that animals respond to human music in remarkably human ways. Or, more accurately, that there is something about musical stimulation that is so universal as to include beings beyond the human. The main indicator of humanity’s musicalness is not our music-making skills, which vary from unrefined and rudimentary to pristine and virtuosic. Rather, it is our innate ability to recognize and respond to music. If this ability is present in animals, as zoomusicologists contend, then musical processing is not just a human venture.

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