Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise

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Making music with animals is not just some hippy-dippy jamming in the woods, but a serious investigation of animal communication systems. Find out more in this book review.

by Warren Burt, Nov. 2013

David Rothenberg is a philosopher, scientist, musician and writer.  He teaches philosophy at New Jersey Institute of Technology and is well known for his ongoing series of books and CDs in which he explores the sounds of our acoustic universe.  Among the most recent of his books are Why Birds Sing, where he investigates not only the nature of bird song but also reasons for it.  For those who dismiss this question with “It’s all just instinct, or territorial defence, or mating,” Rothenberg has quite a few surprises in store.  Thousand Mile Song was a book about whales and their music, while Survival of the Beautiful was a serious investigation, deriving from Darwin, as to why there exists a sense of beauty in nature, and how a number of species seem to share this sense.  Not since Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000) has there been a philosopher who has investigated nature, and the reasons behind our perception of nature, so omnivorously.  And Rothenberg points out that the progress of art in the 20th century has not only been influenced by science but has also influenced it.  As Jaron Lanier sums up Rothenberg’s argument, “He argues, among other things, that without modern art, modern science would have been hobbled by inadequately challenged cognitive habits. Beauty evolved.”  This is quite a challenge to those in the scientific community who see all cultural activity (including all of music according to Stephen Pinker), as simply excess baggage or ornamentation to the basic thrust of physical interaction.

His latest book, Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise, completes the trilogy set in motion with the bird and whale books.  Each of these books is also accompanied by a CD, in which Rothenberg attempts to make music with each of the animals in question.  In some cases, the interactions that result are quite remarkable.  Making music with animals is not just some hippy-dippy jamming in the woods, but a serious investigation of animal communication systems and the systems and abilities we share in common with other species.  And the playing with other species reveals principles that work in human music as well. “If you can’t hear the whale, you’re playing too much,” Rothenberg states.  As a teacher of improvisation, I frequently give the same advice to my students.  With Bug Music, though, Rothenberg has taken on a bigger challenge. As he himself states in the introduction, even the hardest sceptic can accept that there is something musical to the sounds made by birds and whales.  They are, after all, higher intelligences with complex brains and at least a modicum of self-awareness.  But bugs? Insects are simply programmed automata at the lowest level of invertebrate intelligence.  And hive intelligence, such as exhibited by bees and ants, is simply an emergent behaviour, so the argument goes.  Their sound, surely, must just be a by-product of instinctual behaviour with nothing more behind it.  And during the hatching of the cicadas, which fill the air with extremely loud droning, more than simply an annoyance.

Rothenberg again disputes this.  First of all, he’s in love with the sounds of the cicadas.  And then, as he researches the area more and more, he finds that the sounds made by insects vary widely in complexity, purpose and (from our sonic perspective) beauty.  He even attempts music making with insects. The results of this can be heard on the accompanying Bug Music CD.  What is very surprising is that in many cases the insects DO respond to the human music making activities, and some kinds of interaction do indeed happen.

Rothenberg has a lovely writing style.  He combines straightforward science reporting with anecdotes from history, and descriptions of his own activities.  I wish more science writing were as good natured and fluidly written as his.  You’ll be reading along, and suddenly you’ll realize that you’ve read a very well digested summary of a complex scientific paper, AND that he’s related the material in the paper to other sources of information in a way that the original authors couldn’t do.

The book is filled with amazing facts.  One that has great relevance for music is his looking at a spectrograph of Mbuti women from the Republic of the Congo singing on a warm evening.  The spectrograph not only shows the women’s voices at the bottom of the spectrum, but arrayed above them, all the different species of insects in the jungle, each in their own frequency range.  Each different species occupies a different niche in the sonic spectrum. First noted by synthesist and acoustic ecologist Bernie Krause several decades ago, the book gives several elegant examples of this.  Anyone who has read a popular audio magazine article on mixing modern dance music in the past 10 years is well familiar with this phenomenon.  The articles, without exception, always tell you to filter or EQ one instrument or another so that it doesn’t interfere with the ranges of the others.  Why would they do this, or rather, why do we hear this way?  Because we’ve been hearing acoustic environments defined by sonic niches for all of our evolutionary history.  And this is not the only area where insects have influenced human music.  The book abounds with examples of where the sounds of insects have informed human music making, not all of them as trivial as, say, The Flight of the Bumblebee.

And as for insect sounds being simple and repetitive, Rothenberg has a number of surprises here as well.  He interviews composer and acoustic ecologist David Dunn about his work with the sounds of underwater freshwater insects and the sounds of bark beetles in pine trees.  Both of these are so soft that humans can’t hear them.  But when heard through specially designed contact mics, sounds of incredible complexity are revealed.  Similarly with scientist Reginald Cocroft’s work on the sounds of tropical treehoppers.  These sounds are so soft that they can’t even be “heard.”  Laser accelerometers and vibrometers have to be used to bring their vibrations into our hearing range.  When they are, sounds that rival the complexity of birdsong are revealed.

A rich combination of philosophical arguing, science reporting, narrative stories about sonic interactions with insects, and reporting about meetings with a wide variety of folks, Bug Music may not convince you that the cicada screaming next to your window is beautiful (although he did convince me), but it will keep you interested for hours and open up for you a sense of wonder and questioning about the diversity and richness of our sonic universe, and our place in it.  Highly recommended.




 www.bugmusicbook.com   (this website contains some great videos and sound clips of things discussed in the book)





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