Tag Archives: Geophony

Terrestrial Sounds

 Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

On September 5, 1977, NASA sent a probe to study the outer Solar System and continue on to interstellar space. Named Voyager 1, the sixteen hundred pound craft is now approximately twelve billion miles from Earth. An identical spacecraft, Voyager 2, was launched two weeks before its interstellar twin, but Voyager 1 moved faster and eventually passed it. Both probes carry a golden phonograph record containing sounds and images meant to convey the diversity of terrestrial life and human culture. The hope is that, should intelligent extraterrestrials find one of these infinitesimal records in infinite space, they would be able to decipher its contents.

The record includes 116 images and an array of earthly sounds: greetings in fifty-five languages, volcanoes, a chimpanzee, a heartbeat, a train, Morse code, a wild dog, a mother and child, rain, and much more. It also has ninety minutes of music, ranging from a Pygmy girl’s initiation song to Indonesian gamelan music to the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 to the “Sacrificial Dance” from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

The possibility of an extraterrestrial species obtaining, playing, and comprehending the Golden Record is minuscule. Not only is it a tiny object moving in the vastness of space, but the sounds it includes are utterly earthbound. In striving to portray sundry soundscapes, the record reveals a certain, if subtle, unity: every sound on this planet bears the imprint of this planet. Such earthliness would surely fall on deaf alien ears (if they even have an auditory mechanism). The sounds we make or perceive have an evolutionary history unique to our orb.

In the decades since the Voyager space pods were set in motion, much has come to light about the natural origins of music. Bernie Krause’s groundbreaking work on non-human “musical” proclivities suggests, among other things, the millennia-spanning influence of geophony (Earth sounds) and biophony (non-human animal sounds) on anthrophony (human sounds). Other theories of music’s origins point to environmental imprints in one way or another. A rough amalgamation of these nuanced hypotheses shows music as a combination of the imitation of nature and the exploration of human capacities.

Added to this is mounting evidence of the interconnectedness of Earth’s living creatures. As Neil Shubin explains in his popular book, Your Inner Fish, the close examination of fossils, embryos, genes, and anatomical structures indicates that all animals, prehistoric and modern, are variations of the same blueprint—hence the fish within us all. (Shubin remarked in a lecture that he could have just as easily called the book, Your Inner Fly.) What this means musically is that creaturely sounds of all sorts emanate from the same extended biological family, and are thus shaped by variations of the same constraints. The reason why researchers have been able to explore musical vocabularies of songbirds and bugs, and their probable influence on early humans, is because, despite surface dissimilarities, animals are people too (or, more accurately, humans are animals).

The extraterrestrial species that happens upon the Golden Record will almost certainly be nothing like us. Life on Earth shares an anatomical makeup that could have only developed here; other habitable planets would have other ingredients. This is a major criticism of popular depictions of aliens, which, aside from The Blob (1958) and a few others, invariably appear as insects, reptiles, humanoids, or a combination of the three. Genes on another planet would give rise to species beyond our Earth-born imaginations. And our sounds—musical, linguistic, animal, or otherwise—would be unlike anything they’ve ever heard.

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

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.