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Interspecies Music: a guest essay


From The Interspecies Newsletter


pseudorca and squidThere is no doubt that humans have recognized the musical possibilities inherent in the sounds of animals for thousands of years, perhaps even longer than we have been able to speak. In his recent book The Singing Neanderthals, archeologist Steven Mithen argues that Neanderthals had only a musical form of communication, using a kind of emotive structured cry with form and shape for its own sake, more like the songs of birds and whales than the syntax that defines human language and separates our vocal interaction more from the natural world. He then concludes that music for neanderthals was much more important than it could ever be for Homo sapiens, because it was all the vocal communication they had.

Needless to say, this is a rather radical view that not all in his field would agree with, but it does point to an intriguing idea. Musical communication, as it is practiced by many in the animal world including birds, insects, whales, and wolves, may be more important to these creatures than it could ever be to us. Their music is clearly necessary, essential and evolved over millions of years. They know the right song when they hear it, no need to endlessly search and experiment looking for the works of genius that just might endure. Human musicians have to struggle a lot more.

Why do I say these animal sounds are music, not simple forms of language? Because the message in them is usually something similar and simple, with the males doing most of the singing. Attract a mate. Defend a territory. End of story? That's the function, the purpose, which says nothing about the inherent structure and beauty of the sounds, which evolution has so wonderfully produced. Natural selection is not really survival of the fittest, but survival of the interesting.

How to make sense of this animal music? Play along. Though it is common to look at whistling with canaries or talking to parrots as a kind of parlor trick or joke, it can instead be seen as a very serious activity indeed. Music, too, is a form of knowledge. By reaching out with beautiful sound we can touch the intelligence of other creatures in a way hard to measure, but easy to appreciate. It‚s too easy to dismiss it all as wishful anthropomorphizing, but the musical approach is easier than imagining animal sound is some alien language to decipher. Think instead of a foreign rhythm unfamiliar, but still a groove you can latch onto. Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man of the aesthetic sense in animals, and what better way to try to learn that sense that take the leap and join in?

Thousand-year old petroglyphs found in Russian Karelia may depict a man communicating sonically with beluga whales. Part of the traditional human way of living in a natural context includes the belief that all species listen to one another, and respond as they are designed to do. It is simply not true that animals only respond to their own songs. It has long been noted in Indonesia that after a concert of gamelan music, all the insects will sing in an especially synchronized manner. Cicadas will fly at a loud ring of a gong, a sound very different from the ones they make themselves. For centuries European bird trainers have known that bullfinches, who only make a faint whistle in the wild, can be trained to repeat any simple melody within a several octave range. Why do they have this ability which they only use in captivity? No one knows, but in Germany during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, there were numerous bullfinch "academies" where birds were taught to sing, and the best singers competed in public contests throughout the land. An early English collection of recorder tunes called The Bird Fancyers Delight includes pieces meant to be played specifically to starlings, chaffinches, and bramblings, all who were observed to join in with melodies tailored to their aesthetic sense. There was even a small, high-pitched recorder called the "bird flageolet" which was recommended for such interspecies tutoring.

Birds are of course the most obvious singers in the animal world to have impressed human composers. Although Beethoven and Mozart each used specific bird songs in their music, they tended to laugh when asked about it˜Mozart's elegy for his pet starling is entitled "A Musical Joke." Even Olivier Messiaen, the great twentieth century French composer who spent years traveling the world transcribing the songs of as many birds as he could find in detailed, very abstract musical notation, never tried to jam along with these sounds. But in 1924, the world‚s first outdoor radio broadcast changed all that. British cellist Beatrice Harrison convinced the BBC to broadcast live from her garden at night, where nightingales sang along with her solo performances of Elgar's cello concerto and Londonderry Air. This radio program was heard by millions of listeners all over the world, and was repeated live every year for twelve years with great success, thereby suggesting that listeners, if not composers, were certainly ready to admit the reality of interspecies music.

Late in the twentieth century the American jazz musician Paul Winter built his career upon the possibilities inherent in improvising with the natural world. His most successful wild experiments involved wailing on his soprano saxophone along with howling wolves, but he has also used recorded humpback whale songs as live elements in just about every concert he performs. Playing live with whales is much more difficult, but electric guitarist Jim Nollman has spent decades broadcasting his bluesy, feedback-tinged sound under the water so orcas and belugas can respond. Nollman offers some sage advice for those willing to try it: "Treat the music as an invitation. Visualize the bond of time and place as a sanctuary filled with music. Feel what it means to get on whale time. Don't try to communicate; remain humble to the fact that music — especially "beautiful music" — is a judgment call. That rare bird known as the interspecies musician learns to meet the animal halfway, two species willing to play in the same band, if but for a moment. It frolics with our basic conception of what it means to be both human and animal." Both Winter and Nollman's music were tremendously important in building global support for saving the whales, resulting in a worldwide ban on commercial whaling in the 1980s. If they sing, and we can sing with them, how can we kill them off?

The rock musician Peter Gabriel, long a supporter of the intelligence of primates and a critic of the way these animals have been used in scientific research, began playing live with bonobo apes at the primate research center in Georgia in the 1990s. Recordings of these sessions are strangely melancholic, showing the famous ape Kanzi fingering a plaintive melody on an electric keyboard while Gabriel and bassist Tony Levin play along behind a protective glass. The song that resulted from this collaboration urges us to listen outward beyond the limits of humanity:

I didn't meet you in the jungle
Swinging from a tree
I sat down at the piano
You were playing with me.
Intelligent life is all around us.
Talk to me now
I am listening
Communication with the animal nation
We are in communication with the animal nation.

The coming decades may see a much greater acceptance of the creative abilities of animals and our ability to interact with them intelligently. As human music grows to encompass ever more kinds of sounds and listens more sensitively to what is around us, there will be more interspecies music than ever before. It works best when the human musician welcomes the encounter with openness and respect, ready to take in the unfamiliar and genuinely learn something new, to change one‚s musical sense in the presence of new and exciting sounds. Approach the situation without too many expectations, and let us make music together that neither species could make apart. It is one more way for us to learn about and to appreciate the animal world.


Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals (Harvard, 2006)
Jim Nollman, The Charged Border: Where Whales and Humans Meet (Holt, 1999)
David Rothenberg, Why Birds Sing (Basic, 2005)
David Rothenberg and Marta Ulvaeus, eds. The Book of Music and Nature (Wesleyan 2001)
R. Murray Schafer, The Tuning of the World (Knopf, 1977)


What Interspecies Is

music with whales

Belly of Whale CD