Singing to Ourselves

The “melodies of nature” can be a human construction that says more about us than about the musicality of other animals.

In the early morning hours of this year, my restless wife lay in bed and groaned, “That cricket must die. Now. “The love bug, perched very close to our bedroom window, had been chirping constantly since sunset the night before. While it was good for his chances of getting a mate, the animal’s fickleness endangered the harmony of my own marital union.

However, we let it sing. And while listening to the six-legged singer, I remembered that the music is within the viewer’s reach. Or more precisely, in the viewer’s brain.

Thinkers have become poetic about the musical qualities of birdsong for centuries. “And good! the nightingale begins his song, “The most musical, most melancholic bird!” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798. A few decades later, Percy Bysshe Shelley celebrated the lark: “Hail to you, merry spirit! / Bird that you have never said, / that from heaven, or close to it, / you fill your heart full / in profuse varieties of non-premeditated art “.

Even Charles Darwin was guilty of idealizing music in nature. “Musical notes and rhythm were first acquired by the male or female parents of humanity because of the allure of the opposite sex,” he wrote in The Descent of Man.

But are the choruses of nature – from the melodious birdsong to the emerging rhythmicity of insect calls to Darwin’s hypothetical courtship and charm proto-serenade – really “music”? Or are we, the humans, who bring that label and all its cultural baggage to the party?

Science tells us that our brains are expert generators of patterns. So skilled is the human brain at creating order out of disorder that you can find religious figures on burnt toast and dragons in a cloudy sky. Perhaps, then, you will also find music in the sounds of nature.

As it is the hallmark of interesting lines of scientific research, research into the biology of music has precipitated more questions than answers. I can tell you that it is not resolved if non-human animals produce “music”. Some researchers we interviewed for this special issue on music suggested parallels between a singing male bird and a wailing rock star before worshiping fans. Others rejected the idea that human music and the vocalizations of birds, bats, or whales have a lot to do with each other. They framed the vocalizations and instrumentations of non-human animals as dispassionate, almost automatic expressions, honed by evolution to efficiently communicate specific messages to their recipients.

While I am well aware of the dangers of suggesting that specific behaviors are exclusively human, I also realize that some of our eccentricities set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom; wearing pants and watching TV come to mind. So are we just a player in a big animal orchestra? Or are we alone in the production and listening to music for fun? I tend to agree with the latter, but remain open, as always, to evidence-based changes in my thinking.

Of course, all these conceptual disputes mean very little to our cricket friend. Even though he didn’t come back to our window for a replay after my annoying so much, I’m sure his own biology forced him to spend the night elsewhere, happily unquestioned of his innate instinct to do so.

This does not mean that I envied Coleridge, Shelley or Darwin the pleasure of finding beauty or charm in the chorus of birds or in the rhythms of water and wind. I love some of the same patterns, not to mention the musicality of an overloaded washing machine or a bustling city street. But to say that nature is buzzing intrinsically with music is to ignore the very real contribution of our own cognitive abilities to the composition of this symphony.

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