The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Placesby Bernie Krause
Musician and naturalist Bernie Krause is one of the world's leading experts in natural sound, and he's spent his life discovering and recording nature's rich chorus. Searching far beyond our modern world's honking horns and buzzing machinery, he has sought out the truly wild places that remain, where natural soundscapes exist virtually unchanged from when the earliest… See more details below
Musician and naturalist Bernie Krause is one of the world's leading experts in natural sound, and he's spent his life discovering and recording nature's rich chorus. Searching far beyond our modern world's honking horns and buzzing machinery, he has sought out the truly wild places that remain, where natural soundscapes exist virtually unchanged from when the earliest humans first inhabited the earth.
Krause shares fascinating insight into how deeply animals rely on their aural habitat to survive and the damaging effects of extraneous noise on the delicate balance between predator and prey. But natural soundscapes aren't vital only to the animal kingdom; Krause explores how the myriad voices and rhythms of the natural world formed a basis from which our own musical expression emerged.
From snapping shrimp, popping viruses, and the songs of humpback whales-whose voices, if unimpeded, could circle the earth in hours-to cracking glaciers, bubbling streams, and the roar of intense storms; from melody-singing birds to the organlike drone of wind blowing over reeds, the sounds Krause has experienced and describes are like no others. And from recording jaguars at night in the Amazon rain forest to encountering mountain gorillas in Africa's Virunga Mountains, Krause offers an intense and intensely personal narrative of the planet's deep and connected natural sounds and rhythm.
The Great Animal Orchestra is the story of one man's pursuit of natural music in its purest form, and an impassioned case for the conservation of one of our most overlooked natural resources-the music of the wild.
The Washington Post
Krause's musical expertise allows him to hear the orchestral layering of different species in each biophony, an insight that explains group vocalization as an evolutionary survival mechanism rather than a purposeful chorus of noise."Publishers Weekly"
The Great Animal Orchestra speaks to us of an ancient music to which so many of us are deaf. Bernie Krause is, above all, an artist. I have watched him recording the calls of chimpanzees, the singing of the insects and birds, and seen his deep love for the harmonies of nature. In this book he helps us to hear and appreciate the often hidden musicians in a new way. But he warns that these songs, an intrinsic part of the natural world and essential to human well being, are vanishing, one by one, snuffed out by human actions. Read The Great Animal Orchestra, tell your friends about it. And as Bernie urges, let us all do our part to preserve the age old sounds of nature."Jane Goodall"
Krause shows us the music of the natural world - long may his work continue!"Pete Seeger"
Bernie Krause and his niche theory are the real thing. His originality, research, and above all basic knowledge of the sound environments in nature are impressive."E.O. Wilson"
This fascinating book awakens our ancient ears to the source of all music. Read it, and you'll yearn to muffle our din-and hear anew."Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us
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The Great Animal OrchestraFinding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places
By Krause, Bernie
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2012 Krause, Bernie
All right reserved.
Echoes of the Past
It is sixteen thousand years ago, and the plains teem with life. With the presence of the giant armadillo, American cheetahs, saber-toothed tigers, giant beavers, mastodons, camels, caribou, dire wolves, and ground sloths that stand as high as fourteen feet on their hind legs, wildlife is everywhere. Humans haven’t made their appearance in North America yet, but birds in great numbers—including pied-billed grebes, storks, Canada geese, ducks, teals, common crows, turkeys, bobwhites, and dowitchers—fill the air with flight and song, while tree frogs, peepers, insects, and reptiles saturate the sound field with the intricate tapestry of their voices.
It is the end of an ice age, and the leading edge of the massive Wisconsin glacier slowly recedes to the Arctic Circle. With the earth’s warming, the floral world thrives. Pine, oak, and spruce trees, along with larch, aspen, balsam, and poplar, have advanced far to the north along with low-lying shrubs and grasses. The first signs of the boreal forest have taken root in the Western Hemisphere—it thrives through the cold winters and the warm summers, and it is jam-packed with nonhuman life, whose individual voices coalesce into an intense and collective symphony.
In the heart of the young forest, an area surrounding a small stream is luxuriant and green, set under a deep-blue sky with a few tufted clouds; it is infused with the gentle warmth of a summer breeze. This habitat is densely populated with creature life; in fact, at this time, animal life—both numbers of species and individual creatures—is at a numerical peak in our planet’s history. In this one verdant spot thousands of creatures sing in choruses at all times of the day and night. The visual spectacle is impressive, but the sound is absolutely glorious.
This place conveys a complex sonic narrative loaded with significant messages for any sentient being within earshot. The sounds expand to their greatest volumes at dawn and dusk—a loud-soft-loud progression that would be familiar to modern listeners of many styles of music.
Animals are hooting, bleating, growling, chirping, warbling, cooing. They are tweeting, clucking, humming, clicking, moaning, howling, screaming, peeping, sighing, whistling, mewing, croaking, gurgling, panting, barking, purring, squawking, buzzing, shrieking, stridulating, cawing, hissing, scratching, belching, cackling, singing melodies, stomping feet, leaping in and through the air, and beating wings—and doing it in a way that each voice can be heard distinctly, so that the animals seem able to hear and to distinguish one voice from another. The only sound louder than their collective chorusing is the howling wind of a great storm, a clap of thunder, an erupting volcano. The sound of water—a nearby stream—is the one constant nonbiological acoustic signature of the surroundings.
Then the ground shifts unexpectedly; a low, ominous rumble causes leaves in the upper stories of the trees to rustle for a moment like hundreds of muted castanets. Groups of insects and frogs suddenly become very quiet. But birds cry out, abandoning their well-ordered choral hierarchy and scattering in every direction; the air above explodes with the rush of staccato-like wing beats and cries of alarm. Throughout every fiber of each animal courses a sense of unfamiliar danger. Roaming predators steal into view, magnifying the tension of the moment.
Each organism is enveloped in more waves of sonic energy—great vibrations that come from everywhere—above, around, and below the ground itself. Predators take advantage of the moment to pursue those that are less agile and stunned by the earth’s motion. The dominant opportunists—the lions, bears, raptors, and teratorns (with a wingspan of sixteen feet)—generate thundering footfalls and powerful edge-tones from fluttering wings as they propel themselves into the air and crash through the vegetation after their doubly terrified prey. Then come the final cries of the vanquished, a new message that punctuates the moment.
The world’s waters—its oceans, lakes, rivers, estuaries, and coastal mangrove swamps—are packed full with fish, amphibians, reptiles, mollusks, mammals, and crustaceans, along with anemones and calcium carbonate coral structures that nurture and shelter many communities of smaller organisms. The ecosystems that rely on the contributions of marine organisms mark every shore. Like the habitats on land, these, too, are bursting with sound.
The Gulf of St. Lawrence, where that river and the Atlantic join, is home to thousands of species. The typical cod measures six or seven feet in length and weighs more than two hundred pounds. But it can hardly swim any distance without careening into another body, the waters are so vividly heaving with fish. Some bluefin tuna outstrip the cod, with adults measuring more than twelve feet long and weighing over fifteen hundred pounds. Plentiful, too, are the smaller herring and haddock, capelin, salmon, halibut, mackerel, shad, sea turtles, and even tiny smelt. Upriver are the striped bass, sturgeon—individuals can weigh as much as a thousand pounds—and trout. The ocean-dwelling fish supply food sources for the seals, dolphins, and larger toothed whales, while their baleen counterparts rely on krill, copepods, euphausiids, and cyprids.
Abundant sound is complete across the breadth of this marine environment. Some of the fish create acoustic signals with their swim bladders. Others signify their presence by gnashing their teeth. But each fish species generates a unique pressure wave through the oscillation of its tail fin—a signature sound recognized by others in the gulf, especially predators. With water limiting vision, sound is crucial to these animals’ survival and reproduction, just as it is on land. From animals as small as protozoa, copepods, and phytoplankton to large whales, each species creates an acoustic sound-mark. The world’s waters are saturated with living chatter, sighs, drumming, glissandos, cries, groans, grunts, and clicks.
Closer to the equator, coral reefs abound and make up a significant living mass. And they, too, pulsate with sound. Anemones, damselfish, three-spot dascyllus, and clown fish; parrot fish, wrasses, puffers, cardinalfish, grunts, triggerfish, fusiliers, goatfish, butterfly fish, red drum fish, many kinds of surgeonfish, jacks, sharks, snapping shrimp, and black drum fish—each leaves a distinct acoustic impression that, when combined with the others, forms part of a chorus that is set in the subtle acoustic background ambience generated by waves at the surface. Out in the open ocean, the songs of humpback, blue, and right whales are so loud that if unimpeded by landmasses—and when weather and ocean-current conditions conspire to moments of perfection—their voices could circle the earth in just under seven hours. The only sound louder than this combined contingent of mammals, fish, and crustaceans is the raging effect of a hurricane, typhoon, or tsunami.
The ready food supply in this marine environment supports an abundance of shorebird populations and, in the process, the attendant racket. There is the great auk—also called a spearbill—a stately flightless creature that has long since abandoned the air, given that it is a great swimmer. Nearby ocean-based food is so plentiful that it need not waste valuable energy flying to distant places. Then there’s the raucous ow-ow-ow of the shearwaters mixed with the unique voices of puffins, gulls, terns, gannets, petrels, skuas, kittiwakes, fulmers, murres, and cormorants, creating a din that seems to make each vocalist indistinguishable from another. But it’s a curious deception: these are the sounds of survival, reproduction, and communication, and each species has evolved so that it is heard distinctly among the others—and so that it projects over the thunderous, turbulent sounds of the ocean waves.
Mangrove swamps—saline woodlands that hug the subtropical and tropical coastal waters of every continent except the Antarctic—pulsate with curious mixes of insects, mammals, birds, and crustaceans. As the tides recede in these Mesoamerican biomes, crabs lose their grip on the branches and trunks of trees, falling with the distinctive plop of a large, flat, round stone into the exposed muddy sediment below. The crabs will return to the trunks and branches when they become submerged again, on the next incoming tide. When night falls, frog choruses swell and bats ping their echolocation signals in order to find edible insects in the dark. Barnacles clinging to the exposed rocks and mangrove roots twist noisily in their shells, causing tiny high popping sounds that resonate throughout the habitat above and below the waterline. Even at night, when the creatures are enveloped in darkness, many voices persist, competing for recognition.
Glacial ice still covers much of the planet north of the Arctic Circle, even as the planet warms. It’s a cold and desolate place, five to ten degrees colder than it will be some sixteen millennia from now. The receding layers of ice carry with them spores and seeds from the recovered landscape. While these will impregnate the moraine once it becomes fertile enough to spawn the boreal forests of the Arctic’s future, there is not much acoustic life on the surface. But even this environment is not quiet: explosive sounds occur when crevasses—deep elongated cracks—form in the glacial span. The ice mass shatters as it is compressed under great pressure and undergoes periods of melting and snow accumulation, and in addition to the startling popping and groaning of the ice and the ever-present wind and frequent storms, calving glaciers release huge walls of frozen water into the shorelines of rivers, fjords, and seacoasts with a volatile, thunderous burst of sound, the fallen accumulation generating huge waves in the water below. Then there is the sound of the glacier’s own movement: a slight, ominous oscillation caused by its relentless progression overland—a slow, creeping sensation more felt than heard.
Just about halfway to the opposite pole, far from the receding edge of the ice and located within a few degrees of the equator, the tropical rain forests are the most densely populated biological provinces on the planet. Here, too, the vegetation and animal life are adapting to the warming earth, some species being replaced by others better suited to the new climate—but animal and plant life flourish here to an extent that it is difficult to imagine having room for one more species of anything. Rain forests cover nearly 15 percent of the earth’s surface and contain an estimated fifteen to twenty million species of plants and animals. The sound there is riotous.
Mammals, reptiles, and amphibians—from jaguars and spectacled bears to crocodiles and even some frogs—vocalize in relatively low ranges, while other frogs and some birds warble and thrum in the lower-mid range. Still others—insects, along with more frogs, birds, and mammals—have established their voices in the high-mid and upper ranges. So many creature voices scream for attention at such a high volume, it seems miraculous that any one animal can hear another of the same clan, let alone make out the sound of another species, whether friend or foe.
The planet itself teems with a vigorous resonance that is as complete and expansive as it is delicately balanced. Every place, with its vast populations of plants and animals, becomes a concert hall, and everywhere a unique orchestra performs an unmatched symphony, with each species’ sound fitting into a specific part of the score. It is a highly evolved, naturally wrought masterpiece.
Humans, too, are making their sound heard. They are dispersing now, spreading across the planet, leaving behind tangible, visible, and acoustic symbols of their presence wherever they go—detailed pictographs and petroglyphs, bone instruments, hunting and skinning tools, and evidence of larders to store excess grain, which they’ve managed to harvest from early seed plantings. They’re pulling together in larger and larger groups, but basically they’re still hunters. The forest is whispering to them, luring them in and revealing where the objects of their hunt can be found. At this stage of their development, sound-rich habitats are humans’ most significant acoustic influences. The sounds of animal life—organisms from microscopic to huge—and those from the nonbiological landscape dominate the rather modest noises humans generate. They have limited language skills to express what they feel, but they borrow some from what they hear all around them to convey emotion. Perhaps, through their body movement and vocal responses—so evocative of the successful life heard everywhere—these modern humans will convince the other creatures that they are all just an extension of one sonorant family.
This is the tuning of the great animal orchestra, a revelation of the acoustic harmony of the wild, the planet’s deeply connected expression of natural sounds and rhythm. It is the baseline for what we hear in today’s remaining wild places, and it is likely that the origins of every piece of music we enjoy and word we speak come, at some point, from this collective voice. At one time there was no other acoustic inspiration.
Sound as My Mentor
Recording late one night deep in the Amazon jungle, my colleague Ruth Happel and I were alone in the forest several kilometers from camp with no light apart from the beams of our flashlights. Hoping to record the night ambience at several locations, we walked the trail quite aware of the tapestry of sounds around us. Along the way, we also picked up the unmistakable marking scent of a nearby jaguar. We never saw or heard the animal, but we knew it was close, perhaps even just a few feet away; it was frequently scent-marking as it followed us.
The musky feline odor was a constant presence. Our senses were heightened, but neither of us was afraid or perceived any immediate danger. Sitting quietly about fifty meters apart, we recorded the acoustic texture of the nighttime rain forest—the delicate admixture of raindrops on leaves, and insects, birds, frogs, and mammals performing their unified chorus as they have each day and night since the beginning.
After about an hour, we packed our gear and hiked deeper into the forest, listening for recording sites with more varied combinations. Then, around midnight, we decided to split up in order to gather the even greater variety of night sounds we hoped to encounter in this wonderfully rich environment. Ruth went down the path in one direction, and I went off in another.
After trekking for about fifteen minutes, I sat down beside the trail and began to record the intense tropical choruses of frogs, insects, and reptiles. Only then did I hear the cat’s low growl in my headphones. It must have singled me out and followed me. Because I had the headphones’ volume turned up to catch the fragile acoustic composition and detail of the forest, I wasn’t attuned to my unlikely visitor—or aware that it had come that close. The sudden register of the jaguar’s growls in my headset indicated that the cat was not more than an arm’s length from the mics I had set up about thirty feet down the trail.
Fully alert in an instant, a rush of adrenaline catching me off guard, I felt my chest convulse. Trying to think of an exit strategy—there was none—I made some effort to calm down. In the moment, I thought that the sound of my heart was so audible, it would startle the animal. But I kept absolutely still, holding my breath in the darkness.
The incident lasted no more than a minute, but it seemed like a couple of hours as I sat mesmerized by the power of the animal’s voice, its breathing, and the sounds of rumbles in its stomach. Then, as suddenly as it appeared, the jaguar moved silently off into the forest, leaving behind rhythmic waves of frog and whirring insect choruses, and what remained of my pounding heart.
It was by a happy accident that I was drawn to natural sound. My first career was as a studio guitarist, playing sessions of all kinds in Boston and New York. Then, in the mid-1960s, when musicians began experimenting with synthesizers, I moved to California to audit electronic music sessions at Mills College, where I met Paul Beaver, a Los Angeles studio musician and concert pipe organist who had made a career out of creating weird sound effects for feature films such as Creature from the Black Lagoon and War of the Worlds.
The wondrous-sounding tools of Paul’s special trade were early synthesizer-like instruments such as the Ondes Martenot, the Hammond Novachord, and the Theremin, which produced an eerie, wavering soprano-like voice, and his own inventions, including an archetypal two-octave keyboard synthesizer that generated high-pitched sci-fi effects—he called it the “Canary.” We immediately found creative synergy and formed the duo Beaver and Krause, and together introduced the synthesizer to pop music and film in California and the United Kingdom, produced five albums of our own, and performed music and effects for many features—including Rosemary’s Baby, Apocalypse Now, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Performance—and on TV shows such as Mission: Impossible, The Twilight Zone, and Bewitched. We were so busy working one session after the other—sometimes as many as eighty hours a week—that the only recording date I clearly remember is one with the Doors on Strange Days. Early in the session the music was tight and energetic. As time passed over the course of a very long evening, the tracks became more fragmented and seemed to fall apart. When I finally realized that the deterioration wasn’t the result of fatigue, I vowed never to touch another drug. The year: 1967.
Paul and I were commissioned to do a series of albums for Warner Brothers in 1968. The first, titled In a Wild Sanctuary, would be the earliest musical piece to use long segments of wild sound as components of orchestration, and also the first to feature ecology as its theme. But being first meant that we had to collect the sounds ourselves. Wary of shedding his blue serge double-breasted suit and wing tips—his daily costume even in the most stifling L.A. weather—Paul refused to head into the field, leaving the task to me.
The writer Thomas Hardy spoke of chance encounters that alter the course of our lives. A chance meeting with another person. A missed or unread letter. The vivid colors in a sunset. A musical performance. This first venture was bursting with the possibility of such a Hardyesque chance, and I set off, with a compact portable recorder and a pair of mics, to record in and around San Francisco, my home at the time.
In October there was not much birdsong in the area—most birds had fledged, had migrated, or were silent. Nevertheless, the instant I switched on my recorder in resplendent Muir Woods one lovely fall day in 1968, my acoustic sensibilities were transformed by the ambient space that enveloped me. The summer fog was at long last gone, and shafts of dappled fall sunlight perforated the canopy of the old-growth coastal redwoods. Except for a few small aircraft and an occasional distant automobile, the muted ambience heard throughout the woods—a constant reassuring whisper—came from a soft breeze in the upper reaches of the forest. Though I was at first quite afraid of being alone—even in a managed forest like Muir Woods—stillness overcame and calmed me.
Like a pair of binoculars, my mics and earphones brought the sound within a close and intimate range, exposing a range of vivid detail that was entirely new to me. A few birds flew overhead through the stereo space—right to left—the slow cadenced edge-tones of their undulating wings a diaphanous mix of whirr and shush. With my portable recording system, I didn’t feel like I was listening as a distant observer; rather, I had been sucked into a new space—becoming an integral part of the experience itself. It was one of those moments you run toward and fully embrace with an open spirit, afraid it might not last and knowing you’ve experienced something you will always crave.
Sitting alone on the ground with my recorder, trying to appear small and unobtrusive, I was startled by each new sound. Many of the subtle acoustic textures around me were made larger than life through my stereo headphones, on which I cranked the monitor levels so that I wouldn’t miss anything. The impact was immediate and forceful. Impressions of lightness and space were alluring and lustrous. The ambience was transformed into minute detail that I would have never caught with my ears alone—the sounds of my breathing; the slight movement of a foot adjusted into a more comfortable position; a sniffle; a bird landing nearby on the ground, stirring up leaves and then pushing air with its wing beats in short, quick puffs as it took off, alarmed.
I realized, even then, that wild sound might contain huge stores of valuable information just waiting to be unraveled. But to that point in my life, I’d had no way of understanding that the natural world was filled with so much wondrous chatter. How was anyone to know? Many of us don’t distinguish between the acts of listening and hearing. It’s one thing to hear passively, but quite another to be able to listen, fully and actively engaged.
My ears indifferently heard sound, but they weren’t trained to distinguish the many subtleties of untamed natural environments. I had always used my ears as filters—for shutting noise out—rather than as portals allowing large amounts of information in. A fine microphone system lets me differentiate between what to listen to and what to listen for. Through headphones, I hear pieces of the aural fabric in such gloriously clear detail that I am still surprised by how much I was previously missing. A pair of stereo microphones transforms the acoustic space—when I turn up the volume slightly above what I can hear unaided, I get an “out of this world” impression that I imagine astronomers might feel when they receive Hubble telescope images of exploding supernovas from the far reaches of the universe.
Dorothea Lange, the Depression-era American photojournalist, used to say that a camera is a tool for learning to see without a camera. Well, a recorder is a tool for learning to listen without a recorder. The instant I first heard a spring dawn chorus, finally limning the visual setting with a proper sound track amplified through headphones, I immediately realized that with my unfocused ears I had been missing an exquisite part of real-world experience. Amplified sound gave me a way to decipher the language of the wild in ways my musically trained, “cultured” listening couldn’t otherwise grasp. Sitting there recording, I often felt a sudden urge to join the performance. And a feeling of incompleteness nagged at me as I left the forest that day. It was a combination of important secrets left unspoken or unheard and a sense of having lucked into a path of discovery that was nothing short of a divine revelation.
While working on our fifth title, an updated version of an earlier hit for Nonesuch Records, Paul collapsed onstage during a concert in Los Angeles in January 1975. He died a day later from a brain aneurysm. Heartbroken by the loss of my good friend and music partner, I completed the album (Citadels of Mystery) with a group of musicians that featured Andy Narell and other studio friends. And at that point I began to rethink my career choices. In my mind, the last truly productive period in the record industry had passed. Ever more tired of the vagaries and egos of Hollywood—I had been fired and rehired more than half a dozen times during the making of Apocalypse Now alone—I decided to make a change. At forty years old, I quit the music world that I had always known and enrolled in a graduate studies program, earning a doctorate in creative arts with an internship in marine bioacoustics.
You might think I left the world of music behind for that of natural sound. Instead, that is where I truly found it.
Without water, life as we know it wouldn’t exist. Giving off the most ancient of sounds, it is extremely hard to capture acoustically and replicate. Its burbling, hissing, lapping, roaring, crashing, multi-rhythmic periodicity has served as a setting for human themes since the first music was sung and the first words spoken.
It took the full course of musical history for a composer to produce an orchestral composition that approximated a sense of the sea—Debussy got close in La Mer, which was first performed in 1905. However, his piece still required that programmatic visual quality and verbal association in order to be reasonably successful. Here’s an interesting exercise: play excerpts from the piece for a few people who’ve never heard the work and don’t know the title, and ask them what they think it is trying to convey. The one time in the late ’90s that I tried this test—playing the six-minute second movement (“Jeux de vagues”) for a class of seventh graders—the answers ranged from “traveling in space,” “music for a film about the country,” “a scene about a family of dinosaurs,” and “a Western movie” to “just plain boring.” Not one student guessed that the music represented an impression of the sea or even water.
At first glance, the task of recording water looks simple: set up a microphone by the shore and hit the “record” button. But no matter how hard I tried, my early attempts at capturing the sound of water never seemed quite right. We’re so sight-oriented that most of us who have reasonable vision tend to hear what we are looking at. When we’re focusing our eyes on breakers far offshore, our ears and brains usually filter out all but the boom and crash of waves that suggest distance and incredible force. When we’re staring at the leading edge of the waves as they wash up the rake of the beach, we hear the tiny bubbles crackling and snapping as they rupture in the sand at our feet, while the sounds of the distant breakers fade into the background.
Microphones, however, don’t have eyes or brains. They indiscriminately pick up everything within the scope of their design. So, I discovered, if I want to portray the sound of an ocean shore, I need to record a variety of samples from different distances: a couple of hundred feet from the water’s edge, mid-distance from the high dune grasses to the water’s edge, and right at the waterline. By using sound-editing software to combine all the samples at various levels when I get back home, I am able to capture audio that sounds very much like the magic of waves at the ocean. But in its most granular form, what exactly is it that I’m recording? What is sound?
Sound is a medium that’s hard to describe beyond its physical properties—frequency, amplitude, timbre, and duration. Yet it plays a key role in the ways societies express themselves; it is fundamental to the collective voice of the natural world, to music, and to acoustic noises of all kinds.
The basic elements of sound are just outside our linguistic grasp, and to most of us sound has always been an enigma. Once, when asked to describe it, the composer, naturalist, and philosopher R. Murray Schafer responded: “How should I know? I have never seen a sound.” Schafer put his finger on the problem: how many times have you heard the expression “I see what you’re saying”? Our language is so sight-oriented that when Paul and I were asked to score films, directors often described the music they wanted in visual terms: dark, light, bright, really brown and murky in color.
Although we receive sound physically, the recognition that sound cannot be seen, touched, or smelled led the Academy Award–winning sound designer Walter Murch to speak of it as the “shadow sense”—one that exists all by itself in an ethereal, amorphous realm. In their craft as film sound designers, Murch and his colleagues tie the shadow of sound—whether as dialogue, effects, or music—to the much more concrete visual reality of the picture, adding context and thereby transforming both elements.
Only very recently have we attempted to deconstruct the mysteries of sound. Because sound is not easy to conceptualize, discoveries did not materialize quickly. Pythagoras, in about 500 BCE, first described the harmonic structure of the vibrating string, thus laying the groundwork for the principle of acoustics. Centuries later, Aristotle proved that air was essential as a conductor of sound. Scientists, including Greek and Roman amphitheater designers, and then Galileo and Newton, have been uncovering different aspects of sound for the past two millennia. But it wasn’t until Hermann Helmholtz’s book On the Sensations of Tone was first published in the mid-nineteenth century that sound was summarized in a consequential way. Helmholtz dissected every known aspect of his subject—from music to physics—and compiled the history into one volume. In frail health as a child of the 1820s, and coming from a relatively poor family that could not afford a highly prized science and math education for their son, Helmholtz was encouraged by his parents to study medicine in order to gain access to the institutions that would provide the education he desired. After earning his medical degree, he worked for a short time as a surgeon for the Prussian Army, and in addition to acoustics, his young career was marked by significant writings and discoveries across a wide range of fields, including physics, chemistry, optics, electricity, meteorology, and theoretical mechanics. One of his most important findings was in the field of physiology, where he identified the precise measurement of nerve impulses through the electrical stimulation of frog legs. The legs, although not attached to the body, moved when a small current was applied. Helmholtz was able to compute the exact time that elapsed between stimulus and movement, thereby calculating the exact rate of the nerve responses. But as an influential teacher—one of his pupils was Heinrich Hertz, after whom the unit measurement of sound frequency is named—he spent a large part of his academic life outside medicine, addressing the mysteries of music.
What strikes me in particular are his writings on acoustics—especially his descriptions of the famous “Helmholtz resonator” that, like a prism that partitions the light spectrum, could separate and identify individual frequencies of sound from within a complex acoustic structure. Also astonishing—though almost an afterthought, given the resonator’s significance—is his appendix of orchestral reference tunings collected from various towns and villages across Europe at the time of publication of his book. Even though the tuning fork—an early-eighteenth-century two-pronged metal instrument that when struck produces a steady pure tone—was widely used as a reference, Helmholtz discovered that the middle, or “concert,” A ranged anywhere from 373.1 hertz (Hz) in Paris to over 505 Hz in Saxony. Imagine a soprano soloist trying to hit the high E-flat she hit last night with a concert A500 tuning as a reference—the equivalent of almost reaching a high F-sharp in current tuning: nearly impossible. Today, many orchestras tune to an A440, although when I first came to Hollywood in the mid-1960s, the L.A. Philharmonic had a reputation for tuning to an A442, while some European orchestras were still using the darker-sounding A438.
One explanation for the curious musical anomaly of the differing concert As is the variable hardness of the European woods used to make frames and soundboards for the plucked or bowed stringed instruments, including harpsichords, of the time. A harder and denser type of wood would have enabled the strings to accommodate more tension, and thus the instruments could endure a higher tuning—and a “brighter” sound.
Given the growing amount of time I was spending in the wild, Helmholtz’s writings gave me much to consider. Instruments were man-made to complement one another, and from my work with animal sound, I began wondering why particular species would, in the same way, settle on a particular range—higher or lower than another. Do animals, as part of the complex chorus in a given habitat, use one or more certain pitches as some sort of crude reference? How and why did their respective vocal ranges develop? What roles did physiology and environment play?
Thanks in part to Helmholtz’s historical review of sound as well as his own contributions to the science of acoustics, we know that sound is transmitted as waves of pressure coursing through air, solids, or liquids, and we know that the attributes of many sounds include frequency (sometimes referred to as pitch, but that tends to be a more relative term), timbre, amplitude, and envelope. But even though I had played and composed music through two-thirds of my life, it wasn’t until I began working with synthesizers that I started to understand its components and how they all came together. To generate sounds that would fit in a musical composition, I needed to know precisely how all four sound characteristics interacted with one another. If sound—which by itself is very abstract—was to mean anything, then it was control over those four parameters and the placement of the results within a recognizable milieu that gave it form.
Humans with perfect reception can hear frequencies between 20 wave cycles per second, or 20 Hz, at the low end to 20,000 Hz at the high end. The lowest note on a typical piano is 27.5 Hz, and the highest is about 4,186 Hz. Nonhuman animals have evolved different ranges of hearing, the widest of which can be found in whales. We think whales generate and hear vocalizations from below 10 Hz (the blue whale) to a reported 200 kHz (the blind Ganges dolphin)—nearly four octaves beyond the highest pitch we can hear. Other animals typically fall somewhere in between—a large percentage within the range of human hearing.
Pitch is closely related to frequency, but the two are not the same thing. Pitch is mostly used in the comparative framework of sounds or tones that make up a musical scale. So while frequency is a physical property of sound—it’s a measurement of the number of cycles per second of a sound wave—pitch refers to what we hear. The chromatic scale, for example, is made up of twelve equally spaced pitches. As we go up the scale, we hear each note as going up in pitch by an equal amount—a semitone, or half step. However, the change in frequency from note to note is not equal—each successive increment of semitone requires a greater jump in frequency than the last. For example, going from a C pitch to a C-sharp on a piano (261.626 Hz to 277.183 Hz—a difference of about 15.56 cycles) requires less of a jump in frequency than going from that same C-sharp to a D (277.183 Hz to 293.665 Hz—a difference of about 16.48 Hz). The wider spread between C-sharp and D is the result of how the auditory cortex of our brains processes and perceives the sounds that reach our ears. Our brains trick us into hearing the same half-step interval between notes while the spread in actual units of frequency increases as the scale gets higher.
Timbre is the emblematic tone, or voice, generated by each type of instrument or biological sound source. Not only do musical instruments have singular voice characteristics but so does every living organism and most man-made machines. The difference between the sound of a violin and that of a trumpet is as distinctive as that between a cicada and an American robin, or a cat and a dog—or between a Rolls-Royce and a Formula 1 automobile.
When Paul Beaver and I first began to reproduce sounds on an analog synthesizer, we needed to understand how each instrumental voice was produced. At first we had no idea how complicated this would be. Part of our problem lay in trying to define the sound, or timbre, of each instrument. In the nonelectronic, purely physical world, instruments are made of metal or wood, or a combination of both. Some involve strings and/or skins, and many are played by blowing, striking, plucking, or creating friction. These different instruments have different shapes, and each manages to resonate, or “sound,” in a different way.
Excerpted from The Great Animal Orchestra by Krause, Bernie Copyright © 2012 by Krause, Bernie. Excerpted by permission.
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