Natural Sounds

By Joanne Garton

Jellyfish2I remained still underneath a swirling aquatic world. Corals of brilliant blue and pink mixed with fish of bold black and yellow. Water of crystal clarity ebbed and flowed towards gorgeously blond sand. Sea anemone wavered and I watched, transfixed, as the bulging eyes of a massively prehistoric stingray reflected the wonder of it all.

As the sea swelled, forty violins soared to a grandiose peak. As a wave smashed on the rocky shore, cymbals crashed and drums bellowed. And as the wave dissipated, a bassoon emerged from lonesome depths where a barrier shark swam far from the colorful critters near the sun’s dancing rays.

It took three wave and cymbal crashes before I realized that this music of the sea had been choreographed with Hollywood precision. As a tourist in the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, I was listening to the soundtrack of nature, piped in through the invisibly scattered speakers that followed my trail and amplified my mood. Those soaring chords and delightful suspensions latched onto my wonder and awe, building my anticipation and enhanced my excitement when the belugas breeched or the sea lions wrestled.

But was this a bad thing? The music kept me focused, adding drama to the already dramatic, while drowning out the hoards of young families that mixed in with my own. Carefully arranged and built to sell, this supposed music of nature sets the mood that inspires us to linger a while, more so than perhaps, these days, silence can.

Of course, real nature is not silent. Winds sweep, critters cluck, wolves howl and woodpeckers tap. So do other animals hear music in nature? What about insects, reptiles, or microbes? What do they hear?

Welcome to the biophony, the organic orchestra that makes up the ambient sound of every habitat. Although humans easily relate to the patterned twirls of songbirds and the rhythmic ballads of humpback whales, the idea that music can be created by the mixed timbres and frequencies of any species is largely foreign. The further supposition that the animals themselves may perceive music out of these sounds is a beautiful yet untestable hypothesis. Unless there exists a test for tranquility, which I’m sure is plausible.

The Tlingit and Inuit have listened for millennia to the soundscape of whales in the ocean through the hulls of their boats. As a landlubber and tourist most unlike these seafaring people, I’ll rely on carefully placed chord suspensions to steer my way through the aquarium and cue my emotions. Regardless of what it sounds like on the other side of the glass, I did find some sort of tranquility gazing at the octopus as it peeled its way across the tank to the rumble of lumbering cellos and distant timpanis. Many days later, as an emotionally wrought symphony played over the radio, my three-year-old son said, “That’s the music from the aquarium.” Whether it was from the real sea or the orchestrated one, I knew that the music had cemented the experience.

With help from: The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music by Gray et. al., in Science, January 5, 2001, and Music without Borders by Susan Milius in Science News, April 15, 2000.

 Joanne Garton is an Ecological Planning student who knows quite a lot about music and very little about sea anemone. 

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