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Bull Hill
by David Rothenberg, Editorial Board Member, Terrain.org

The Picture of a Song Freezes the Music of Nature


Veery in Connecticut.
Photo by Jim Zipp.

Why is it that we could never take sound seriously until we could turn it into image? It’s like human beings need to turn time into space to admit that it unequivocably, factually exists. Look how people have made sense of even one simple bird song over the centuries!

Consider the song of the veery, known for its querullous, queasy descending line heard every spring in the green wooded forests of eastern North America; Catharus fuscescens, a brown, spotted-belly thrush that lives in temperate American forests. I believe the bird’s song is the source of its name, a swirling, peeooweeeoooweeeooo descending invisible behind dense green leaves. You will almost never see this bird, but you will often hear him, sometimes from very far away. An early native American forest guide said, “this sound really makes me sick,” but I find it captivating, mysterious.

How are we to represent the sound, to bring it within the realm of human understanding? A pioneering work in this field, F.S. Mathews’ Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music (1904), describes it such:

Mathews' veery call

and Aretas Saunders, author of a famous mid-20th century (1951) Guide to Bird Songs, represented the sound like so:   

Saunders' song of the veery

Here the graphic notation of the veery song looks like a sweeping round sigh descending through the trees, that or graphic notation by Tibetan monks or Cornelius Cardew. Not as musical to our classical aesthetes but more like a wash of synthesized atmosphere present in the electronic music of today.

How does the veery become a suspected jazz bird? Using the popular computer music software Ableton Live, I slowed the veery’s song down and discovered a syncopated line like a phrase out of Miles Davis’s electric fusion period, which conventional musical notation can only partially report:

Song of the veery slowed using Ableton Live:

Musical notation of slowed veery song

I really didn’t expect something like that to come out, a melody that changes from C minor to G7 midcourse. And who knew a veery was swinging like that, with the sound so high and too fast for us to hear it.

Modern science prefers computer-generated sonograms, like the one below created by the shareware program Amadeus, with frequency on the vertical axis plotted against time:

Sonogram of slowed veery song

That reveals the structure, but not really the sense of syncopation. So we have the wishful thinking early transcription, the transposed melody into the astonishing realm of Miles Davis-like cool jazz trumpet phrase, and then a more precise transcription, which in the end demonstrates a very refined sense of musicality in the single utterance of this musical bird. He’s veerying with feeling, he means something because he’s got that swing. In the end we have the sonogram, produced by a machine seeking no nuance. Is that then our most accurate representation of what this veery sings?

What does the veery song mean? Some call music the language of emotions, pulling our heartstrings the way nothing else can. Others say its meaning is purely musical, to be understood only between precise rules of form and order that most listeners hardly know. There is truth in both these claims, and this is true for both humans and animals. Slow it down, it enters the range of human aural understanding. Turn it into a scientific image, frequency plotted against time, and the structure is visibly clear, obviously organized, formally beautiful.

Swamp cicada
Dog day cicada, Tibicen chloromera.
Photo by Richard Orr, courtesy Mid-Atlantic
Intervebrate Field Studies

That’s a simple sonogram, an easy bird song tweaked clearly into the world of human music. These days I’m at work on a new book on the music of insects, and these guys make sounds far away from what people like to think of as melody and form. And yet, we humans have enjoyed their songs for thousands of years, even if this music is far from the tones and shapes of human melodies. A single cresting late August cicada produces a wall of scratchy noise, but an organized noise nonetheless. Sonograms of noisy sounds with all their complex harmonics and non-harmonics can visually produce extremely beautiful images. The more we listen to a complex insect tone, say the extended whoosh/thrum of the more common annual cicada, those that emerge in August, not June, one hears a rich, evocative musical phrase, even though it is just a single note, and a sound far from the pure tones we usually associate with music.

Here is a sonogram of 20 seconds of the song of Tibicen chloromera, the dog day cicada:

Sonogram of 20 seconds of the song of Tibicen chloromera

Over a bit less than half a minute the dog day cicada clicks its tymbals in and out rapidly to make a sound of intense power and beauty. The vertical presence in the sonogram shows that this is not a clearly pitched sound, but a gradually intensifying thrum with a rich complexity of noise behind it. The regular ‘beats’ in the sonogram after about 13 seconds show that there is a rhythm to the song, albeit one humans can barely perceive.

Great dusk calling cicada cicada
Great dusk calling cicada, Tibicen auletes.
Photo courtesy David Rothenberg.

The order and pattern in this utterance show that this is carefully shaped and produced sonic event. It is a unique music of single complex tones, all the more comprehensible to the human mind when turned into something clear and visual. The proportion and balance we can see in this sound allow us to appreciate the musicality and order in the song of the cicada where our ears might at first let us down.

Compare another species that comes out at this same late summer time of year, Tibicen auletes, the scissor-grinder or great dusk calling cicada, over two inches long with imposing translucent wings.

This, the largest annual autumnal singing insect, produces a higher-pitched more humming sound where some pitched elements cut through the noisy fray, as its sonogram reveals:

Sonogram of great dusk calling cicada, Tibicen auletes

Seeing the rising hill-like shapes and clear bands at certain frequencies shows precisely that this bug’s song is more tonal, more like a ringing sound than like a total wash of noise. But it too has a clear beginning, middle, and end, a pleasing form like a low glacial esker or rounded Catskill mountain ridge.

You who know these cicada sounds might consider them noisy, intrusive, insane, and distracting. Yet look at the pictures, you will instantly see their beauty. I venture say these sonograms are even more beautiful than that of the astounding, slowed-down veery.

Well, it takes all kinds of music for the animal world to go on. If we can’t hear it, at least we can see it. Music to our eyes: one more example of the marvelous music nature has evolved. It’s survival of the beautiful all right. Didn’t someone write a book with that title? If not, someone should….


David Rothenberg's latest book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution, was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. His latest CDs are Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast and You Can't Get There From Here. His next book, Bug Music, will appear in 2013. Catch up with him at www.DavidRothenberg.net.
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Aretas Saunders, Guide to Bird Songs (1951).

Arthur Cleveland Bent, Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds, (New York: Harper, 1960), p. 271.

David Rothenberg, Why Birds Sing (Basic Books, 2005).

F.S. Mathews, Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music (1904).

Insect Singers: Cicadas of the United States and Canada, East of the 100th Meridian


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