Sustainable Music


Saturday, September 30, 2023

Ecological Imaginaries 3

     If you’ve watched much cable news or streamed other programs lately you’ve probably seen the ads for a dietary supplement called “Balance of Nature.” These are pills that, even though they are not whole foods, are said to contain nutrients present in fruits and vegetables. The name of this product benefits from two widely-held and related beliefs: one, that people should eat a balanced diet; and two, that the natural world is (or should be) balanced: it is self-regulating and in the absence of significant human meddling the Earth corrects disturbances and moves in the direction of balance, as for example in the fluctuating populations of a predator species and its prey.
    These two beliefs are so widely held that they are thought to go without saying. But if one is asked about them, the usual reply is that according to scientific studies, a diet of too high a proportion in fat, carbohydrate, or protein has been shown to be unhealthful. Similarly, scientists have observed and studied self-regulation and dynamic but balanced equilibria in natural ecosystems such as lakes for more than a hundred years. Nevertheless, each of these beliefs has undergone significant challenge. Think, for example, of high protein or low carbohydrate diets; these are not balanced in the usual sense, yet they are said to be more healthful. As regards balance in the natural world, scientists for the past fifty years have found so many instances in which nature absent meaningful human influence does not return to a previous balance after significant disturbance but, rather, changes to a different state or regime with different components and a different kind of equilibrium, that within the field of ecological science the idea of natural balance has by now been discredited and abandoned. I return to "balance of nature" because some members of our DERT (diverse environmentalist research team) will be speaking in a forum five weeks from now on the subject of ecological imaginaries, and as I wrote in this blog a year ago, balance of nature is an ecological imaginary--and I intend to say some more things about it. 

     Here, then, a few further thoughts. Despite it having been discarded by ecological scientists, the belief in natural balance persists in the public sphere and especially among people concerned with the current environmental crisis. Oversimplified, the idea goes something like this: human beings have so disturbed the natural world through extraction of natural resources like fossil fuels and the ensuing emissions, unsustainable economic growth and endless construction that destroys natural habitat, and so on and on, that the result is an environmental crisis whose symptoms are climate change and species extinction. The natural world is obviously now out of balance but if we stop emitting carbon and stop destroying habitat the world will come back into balance. As a result, environmentalists are keen to reverse the major cause of this unbalance and replace fossil fuels with the natural energy of solar and wind power.
    My point here isn’t to promote or discourage dietary supplements or to agree or disagree with the opposing views of ecological scientists and environmentalists concerning natural balance, but, rather, to consider the idea of natural balance as an “ecological imaginary”—that is, a network of ideas and beliefs that a particular group of people have about the natural world, what it is, how it operates, and how we should behave in relation to it. Such an ecological imaginary rises in contemporary America to the status of cultural myth. By myth I don’t mean to imply a superstition or something false, as myth is commonly understood, but rather a belief so powerful and pervasive that it usually goes unquestioned, regardless whether it is true or false. A contemporary example of such a myth is the belief that continuous economic growth is required for national prosperity and wellbeing. American myths that were powerful when I was younger included "e pluribus unum" (out of many, one) -- that is, the melting pot; and the idea that hard work and virtue will be rewarded because America was a "land of opportunity" -- equal opportunity. Today the opposite of those myths are prevalent: that instead of assimilation and harmony Americans are increasingly fractured and at odds with one another; and that due to growing inequality of opportunity, rewards come from not from diligence and integrity but from gaming the system.
    To my knowledge it was folklorist Richard Dorson who first proposed that these American cultural myths were examples of folklore; that is, they were better understood as folk beliefs than as belonging to the world of verifiable fact. As J. L. Austin would have said, these folk beliefs were “performative”: they were affirmed in the process of being enacted, and they brought about change in the world by virtue of their performances as speech acts. As a graduate student after World War II, Dorson had been immersed in the so-called “myth-symbol school” of American Studies. Its guiding idea was that Americans shaped their lives on the basis of deeply held beliefs related to certain symbols, such as the American frontier, thought to encourage a belief in the abundance of natural resources, as well as personality traits such as courage, forbearance and ingenuity, along with the belief that merit was based on ability, not birth or status. Dorson's insight was to think about these myth-symbols as folklore. If he were alive today he would say that Americans perform their beliefs in expressive cultural forms related to those symbols. Examples would be environmentalists performing their beliefs by protesting the progress of fossil fuel pipelines, and rural people sharing stories about the land and sustainability of its resources, what Mary Hufford has called a “narrative ecology.”
    To return to “balance of nature,” then, as both an ecological imaginary and a folk belief that environmentalists perform and ecological scientists debunk, is there a way to reconcile these opposing viewpoints? In the next entry I will discuss one possible way to do this, looking at different ways that the two scientists who proposed the Gaia Hypothesis, Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock, have approached planet Earth as a holistic entity. It turns on the difference between function (Margulis) and purpose (Lovelock).

Monday, July 31, 2023

Sustainable Colleges and Universities: the Maine problem

The University of Southern Maine


Public education is under fire in Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Arkansas and elsewhere from political figures who have been trying to implement a conservative curriculum. The Florida controversy over the Advanced Placement course in African American History is but one example of many. Media stories have highlighted the activities of consultant Christopher Rufo, of Hillsdale College, and other individuals and organizations with a conservative educational agenda.


Thankfully, this political infection hasn't spread to the state of Maine but, Maine being a poor New England state with a fiscally frugal population, the state legislature has gradually strangled public education by reducing the funding it provides higher education: today 43% of the funding for the university system, whereas in 1972 it paid 70%. Tuition for private liberal arts colleges in Maine like Colby and Bowdoin is about $60,000 annually, whereas for the University of Maine at Orono, the flagship state university, tuition costs a full-time student only $12,000 per year. Yet, the legislators expect UMaine somehow to maintain standards and offer a quality education to all who qualify. In truth, 96% of its applicants are admitted, so there is no question about qualifying; moreover, more than 40% of the students enrolled in Maine's higher educational institutions system-wide are first-generation college students, while more than half of all enrollees qualify for Pell grants, signaling exceptional financial hardship. Meanwhile, tuition income for the university is down because overall in-state enrollment at UMaine has slipped in recent years as much as 25%. This slippage is due partly to a declining school-age population, but chiefly because the vast majority of Americans now view higher education vocationally, and they evaluate it not in terms of what is learned but rather by its financial costs versus benefits. Burgeoning student debt fuels this attitude and as a result fewer students choose higher education in Maine and elsewhere. Meanwhile, a liberal arts education at a private college or university like Bates or Brown is considered a luxury for the wealthy few whose families have benefited from increasing income inequality. Although these liberal arts institutions have diversified mightily in terms of race and ethnicity, to the point that almost half the student body identifies as people of color, the fact is that they have not diversified nearly so much economically: most of the minority students come from middle-class backgrounds, or they were privileged to be identified early for their abilities and tracked into college-prep high school courses.


The land-grant universities in every state, including the state of Maine, were established in the 19th century so that students would be able to learn not only the career-oriented "useful arts" but also the humanities and the sciences. They would learn about the broader world outside the narrow compass of family, place, and personal history; they would learn about the past so they could live more effectively in the future. The idea was that more broadly educated individuals made the best leaders, and that all would contribute to society as knowledgeable and effective citizens. This higher aim has been all but lost, and the result is obvious: an electorate increasingly ignorant of science and of history.


To combat financial hardship, the University of Southern Maine, the second largest campus in the state after UMaine Orono, has just announced a strategic plan aimed at belt-tightening. The plan proposes to eliminate courses with low enrollments. However, low enrollments are a fact of life in specialized, advanced courses, particularly in graduate schools. Low-enrollment courses are indeed expensive to teach, so universities fund them, as it were, with high-enrollment undergraduate courses to even things out. Moreover, universities have been spending less per course by hiring part-time faculty members (adjunct professors) whose salaries are poverty-level low, and who receive fewer or no perquisites: no medical benefits, for example. Fifty years ago part-timers accounted for less than 20% of university faculty; today that figure is more than 50%. Such has already been the belt-tightening in response to decades of lower and lower funding from state legislatures. And while colleges and universities were pruning full-time faculty, they were expanding the number of full-time administrators. Most of these institutions are now top-heavy with managers, deans, associate deans, assistant deans, development officers, assistant development officers, financial managers, and so on.


The implementation of free (or low-cost) public education in the United States was a radical move more than 150 years ago. The idea behind it, of course, is that a good education is a right, not a privilege; and that its benefits would accrue not just to individuals but to the nation as a whole. Many of our citizens and political leaders appear to have forgotten this. The solution to the financial problems facing public education today is not charter schools, nor is it belt-tightening, nor is it a curriculum determined by political agenda. Rather, the solution is to restore the higher funding levels of fifty years ago, to increase the percentage of full-time faculty, and to reduce the number of managerial positions.

Friday, June 30, 2023

Mid-year update on a couple of writing projects

    Two of my long-term writing projects are finishing up now: a book that has been in production at the publisher (Oxford University Press) for several months, and the other (an article to be published early in 2024 in the Journal of American Folklore) has just undergone copyediting.

    The book, Sounds, Ecologies, Musics, which I've co-edited with Aaron Allen, now has a website. Rather than describe the book and contributing authors here, may I suggest that readers check out the website where that information is available? Regarding the production, it's been a pretty long slog, what with having to work with our contributing authors (and ourselves) through revisions at the copyedit and proof stages, and also to work with the production company that Oxford is using, which is located in India. There have been numerous backs-and-forths, most of which were routine although time consuming. The one exception was a late reflection by one of the authors that something written could possibly result in a slap suit, so as a result several paragraphs had to be re-written at the last minute, the number of paragraphs in the chapter increased, and the changes rippled through the rest of the production. Luckily, that wasn't Aaron's and my problem to take care of. But we did have to make various corrections and additions to the Index, which we had (wisely) farmed out to a professional indexer. At the moment the production team is working with our corrections to the second proofs, and we will need to make sure these are properly implemented, before we can sign off and they can put the book further along and into the queue for printing later this summer. 

Lobster fishing in a peapod, as was done in the 1800s. Courtesy of the Northeast Folklore Archives, University of Maine.
    The article for the Journal of American Folklore, which I've mentioned on this blog before, is a critique of the natural capital/ecosystem services philosophy of environmental planning which in turn affects the way natural (environmental) heritage is framed for tourism, an activity (tourism, especially cultural tourism) that public folklorists have been deeply involved in for several decades. In effect, ecosystem services (that is, the services that the natural environment provides for people) has for more than a hundred years been regarded in terms of costs and benefits, an economic equation that does not play well with the cultural values that tourists, particularly ecotourists, place upon travel. At the same time, the natural capital/ecosystem services framework is applied to certain extractive industries, such as ocean fishing, downplaying the experiential folklife of the workers themselves, whose relationship with the work often transcends economic considerations, especially when the work becomes a way of life and forges cultural value beyond price for a close-knit community, while simultaneously damaging the environment. This summary is of course very abstruse, and so in a later blog post closer to publication I will offer some more concrete detail about this critique; but its major outline should be familiar to readers of this blog because these ideas about the tension between economic value and cultural values have been swirling around here for a dozen or more years. Meanwhile, the article has just undergone copyediting and my review, and the ball is back in the editors' court as the manuscript moves toward the proofs stage.


Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Will orcas sink whale-watching boats because of noise pollution?


Orca whales jumping. Photo by Robert Pittman, Wikimedia Commons.

            Even if they haven't read the novel, most everyone knows the ending of Moby-Dick: the white whale sinks Captain Ahab's whaling boat, the Pequod, and all perish save Ishmael, who survives to tell the tale. So it may not have been entirely surprising to hear recent news reports of orcas (killer whales) attacking and seriously damaging fishing boats--already twelve boats this year. As it happens orcas have been well studied by not only by biologists but also by ecomusicologists interested in the sounds they make. Orcas find their food by echolocation; that is, by sending out sound signals and listening for the echoes to located prey. Orcas, like other whales, also communicate with one another via sound.

            Ecomusicologist Mark Pedelty made a documentary film, Sentinels of Silence, about how the propeller noise from powerful whale watching boats in the Salish Sea (the waters off the northwest coast of the United States and the southeast coast of Canada) upsets the orcas that live there, making it impossible for them to locate their food or one another. Whale-watching is a major tourist business in the area, but orcas are an already endangered species. This intrusion into the ocean sound commons undoubtedly makes it more difficult for orcas to survive. Animal rights activists fought the whale-watching industry and, with the help of Pedelty's film, were able to convince the government to regulate the noise pollution from the whale boats.

            The dozen orca attacks this year all occurred off the coasts of Spain and Portugal. Some scientists hypothesize that these orcas may be attacking those fishing boats for vengeance: either because the boats are interfering with the orcas' food supply, because the orcas get entangled in the fishing gear, or even because one of them was struck by a fishing boat. None of the scientists mentioned the possibility that propeller noise was a reason for the orca attacks. The scientists attribute agency to the orcas and have observed a female named White Gladis "teaching" the other orcas to attack the boats. This behavior hasn't yet been observed in the Salish Sea, but it's not beyond possibility.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Global Webinar: Why I Do Applied Ethnomusicology. May 4 & 11, 2023.

Jeff Titon (electric guitar, left) and Lazy Bill Lucas (electric piano, right) performing at the People's Park, Dinkytown, Minneapolis, 1970. My work in applied ethnomusicology was an outgrowth of my friendship with Bill Lucas.


        The Applied Ethnomusicology Section of the Society for Ethnomusicology is sponsoring a global webinar, May 4 & 11, on the subject, "Why I Do Applied Ethnomusicology." Three speakers will be presenting, each for 20 minutes, followed by 10 minutes for questions. I was invited to be one of the speakers. I had declined at first but the sponsors coaxed me into accepting. Yesterday I recorded my presentation on video, and uploaded it so that the technical experts could play it back for the webinar on those two dates. I'll be present in person on May 4 for the Q&A session, but it's unlikely that I'll be able to make it for the 11th on account of the time schedule, which places the global webinar at an hour (5 a.m.) when most people in my part of the world are asleep.

         In case the global webinar is of interest to readers of this blog, it's possible to for you to participate for free; but to do so you need to pre-register. Information on pre-registering is in the links below. 

Here are the titles of the presentations:

 1. Michael Frishkopf, "AI-generated soundscapes for stress reduction: From the intensive care unit to the library." 


 2. Jeff Todd Titon, "Applying ethnomusicology: From the study of people making music to the study of beings making sound." [Note: the text of my presentation is on my page.]


 3. Sally Treloyn, "The work of return: Digital media, sustainability, and applied ethnomusicology."

And here is the time schedule and registration link for each of the two times that the global webinar will be presented:

Addis Ababa and Nairobi: 9 pm, May 4 


Cairo and Cape Town: 8 pm, May 4 


Copenhagen and Paris: 8 pm, May 4 


London and Dublin: 7 pm, May 4 


Sãu Paulo: 3 pm, May 4 


New York and Toronto: 2 pm, May 4             

Jeff Todd Titon (recording, with Q&A live)  

Alberta: 12 pm, May 4                                        

Michael Frishkopf (speaking live) 

Los Angeles: 11 am, May 4 


New Zealand: 6 am, May 5 


Sydney: 4 am, May 5                                     

Sally Treloyn (recording) 

Japan and Seoul: 3 am, May 5 


Beijing and Kuala Lumpur: 2 am, May 5 



Register in advance for this meeting on May 4:

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting. 



May 11, 2023 

New Zealand: 9 pm, May 11 


Sydney: 7 pm, May 11                                    

Sally Treloyn (speaking live) 

Japan and Seoul: 6 pm May 11 


Beijing and Kuala Lumpur: 5 pm, May 11 


Addis Ababa and Nairobi: 12 pm, May 11 


Cairo and Cape Town: 11 am, May 11 


Copenhagen and Paris: 11 am, May 11 


London and Dublin: 10 am, May 11 


Sãu Paulo: 6 am, May 11 


New York and Toronto: 5 am, May 11               

Jeff Todd Titon (recording) 

Alberta: 3 am May 4                                           

Michael Frishkopf (recording)   

Los Angeles: 2 am, May 11 



Register in advance for this meeting on May 11: 

After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

Friday, March 31, 2023

Spring Peepers: Sounds as Environmental Health Indicators


Looking for frogs in a vernal pool

    Spring is the season to hear the "spring peepers," the frogs and toads and in some places, salamanders, singing their mating sounds and vibrating the waters in the wetland vernal pools that appear in the spring with the snow melt and rain, and disappear in the dry summer weather. As it happens, an article by Margaret Renkl that appeared four days ago in the New York Times called attention these spring peepers. They're able to mate and their offspring to mature in these pools because of the absence of fish--indeed, these ephemeral wetlands are not fed by springs or streams and cannot support the fish that would prey on them.

     The amount of wetland habitat for these amphibians has, of course, been shrinking in the face of land clearing and development; and although river and stream environments enjoy some environmental protection in the US, wetland vernal pools do not. As a result, the amphibian population has been declining, most recently at the rate of 4% per year. That may not seem like much in one year, but over the years it does add up. In her article, Renkl notes that amphibians are recognized as "indicator species": "the health of an ecosystem's amphibian population is one way to measure the health of the ecosystem itself," Renkl writes. But how does one measure the health of the ecosystem's amphibian population? She doesn't say, but one implication is clear: by sound. That is, the louder and more raucous the peepers, the larger the population and the healthier the ecosystem.

    Sound, in other words, is a key to evaluating environmental health in the natural world.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Music, Sound and Nature

Yellow warbler. Photo by Jeff Titon, 2010.


I begin with a bit of news: FeedSpot has selected Sustainable Music as one of the fifteen best musicology blogs and websites. I appreciate their recognition of this blog, maintained since 2008.

What follows now is a short introduction, for high school and first-year college students, to the topic of music, sound and nature. I wonder if ChatGPT would produce anything similar. I plan to find out. In any case, I wrote this essay in 2019 and have just now imported it into this blog, but I can't seem to overcome the strange formatting triggered by the endnote numbers in the text. So be it, and my sincere apologies for any difficulties in reading. 



         All over the globe, and throughout history, people have recognized deep connections between music, sound, and nature. The 3rd century B.C.E. Chinese Taoist text, the Zuangzi, asks “You may have heard the [musical] notes of Man, but have you not heard those of Earth?”[1] Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journals of the comforting hum of the “earth song,” the music made by frogs, crickets, and other animals.[2] This essay links earth song to human-made sounds and music for social change and a more sustainable future. 



Sounds tell us a lot about the environment. The natural landscape and the built environment surround us with sounds, whether the sounds of thunder, the whoosh of the wind shaking the trees, the ring of the church bell, the bang of the drum, the alarm-call snorts of deer, the hum of the refrigerator or the scream of the police car siren. We wonder why birds sing.[3] What kind of language is bird song? Is it like human language, or are they just signaling--“danger!” or “here I am?” Have you ever tried to talk with a bird, singing back its melody?[4] Living beings communicate by means of sound. If their acoustic channels (“acoustic niche” is the technical term) are blocked, they either fail to get their signals through or they may try another channel. Birds that live near highways sing higher to avoid being blocked by traffic noise.[5]



We call the characteristic sounds of a place its soundscape. Soundscapes consist of anthrophony (sounds made by human beings), biophony (sounds of nonhuman beings), and geophony (sounds of the Earth, such as wind, rain, thunder, earthquakes, and glaciers). You can imagine how important sounds must have been in an earlier America.[6] Who has not heard of the Liberty Bell? The ringing of large bells could be heard over very long distances. People marked the passing of time with bells ringing in clock towers; bells called children to school and churchgoers to church. The chugging of the railroad locomotive, the clicking of the cars on the tracks, and the scream of the railroad whistle became common sounds in the 19th century.[7] As the trains rolled through the countryside, many a farmer out in the fields hoeing corn or chopping cotton wondered what it would be like to travel and start a new life in some distant city. Many a “railroad blues” song expresses those feelings while a harmonica imitates the sound of the train whistle.[8] What might Rachel Carson have meant when she titled her book about pesticide misuse Silent Spring?[9]     



Soundscapes have interested sound collectors ever since it became possible to make recordings. In some countries, such as Japan, sound collecting has been going on for many decades.[10] Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records, encouraged collectors of biophonic, geophonic, and anthrophonic sounds and released them on LPs beginning in the 1950s. You can still hear those Folkways albums featuring the sounds of frogs and other amphibians, birds, thunderstorms, even rooms filled with typewriters clicking away (typing pools, as they were called back then).[11] Today’s international sound collectors get together on the internet to share their recordings and technical expertise.[12]



Soundscapes inspire composers of music in various ways. 20th-century musique concrète composers sampled and mixed recorded environmental sounds into their musical performances. John Cage’s famous 4’ 33” is a composition in which the musicians do nothing for the four minutes and thirty-three seconds’ duration of the composition. The only “music” the audience hears is the soundscape of the room in which the “performance” occurs. Contemporary sound installations are sited so as to integrate musical compositions with environmental sounds, indoors and out. Environmental sound art not only awakens listeners to the soundscape but also to environmental impacts of noise pollution (as from airplane flyovers in the National Parks) and habitat change. Some composers have taken down bird songs in musical notation, and others have incorporated, imitated, or transformed bird song phrases in their compositions. In Chinese music such as “100 Birds Courting the Phoenix,” for suona (oboe) and ensemble, extended passages are a virtual catalog of bird calls and songs imitated by instruments.[13] But birdsong played an even more important role in traditional Chinese music. According to the ancient book of the Chunqiu, in the 3rd millennium B.C.E. the Yellow Emperor Huangdi sent one of his courtiers, Lin Lun, to the western mountains to invent music.[14] There he gathered hollow bamboo and made twelve pipes of “superior and inferior generation” to match the pitches he heard in the harmonious singing of the fenghuang birds.[15] In other words, Chinese mythology tells us that the Chinese musical scale comes from birdsong. It was also believed that in a new dynasty the Chinese Emperor would order the fixed-pitch instruments to be recalibrated in order to bring them back in tune with the universe. It would be hard to find a stronger connection between music, sound, and the environment.



Nor was the connection between harmony in music and the universe confined to ancient China. You may have heard about the idea of the music of the spheres. The ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras (c. 570-495 B.C.E.) claimed that that when the mathematical ratios that described the motions of the stars and planets were also made to govern musical intervals, they created harmonious sounds; and that therefore these heavenly bodies must make pleasing music (although their sounds were beyond human hearing). This idea of a harmonious universe also was essential to medieval and Renaissance European music philosophers, and to educators who made the study of music a required part of the quadrivium, an important part of the medieval curriculum. Today music is not so central to education, yet most students listen to music on a daily basis for pleasure and consider it an essential part of their lives.



People deeply concerned about the climate emergency ask what they can do to help mitigate this environmental crisis. One way is to become involved with music that raises environmental consciousness, promotes solidarity and encourages care for the Earth. In addition, emerging fields of study such as ecomusicology combine ecology with music in new and powerful ways that can combine knowledge with environmental activism.[16] Raising environmental consciousness often occurs in the face of habitat loss or environmental dangers. In 1966 Pete Seeger recorded God Bless the Grass, the first album of environmental protest songs. Seeger’s “My Dirty Stream,” about the Hudson River, went on to become a protest rallying cry after his Clearwater sloop took part in the first Earth Day (1970).[17] In “Big Yellow Taxi” (1970) Joni Mitchell sang “They paved paradise and they put up a parking lot,” which immediately became a proverbial expression for the environmental movement’s opposition to the proliferation of shopping malls and industrial parks. And in this century, to take one of hundreds of more recent examples, several musicians have devoted themselves to protecting the US Northwest Coast bioregion, the old-growth forests and salmon grounds on the coasts of Washington and British Columbia. Dana Lyons, Idle No More, and The Raging Grannies are among those musicians whose protest songs target the endangered Salish Sea environment.[18] The Hypoxic Punks sing about environmental problems in their home city of Minneapolis-St. Paul.[19] Wikipedia lists hundreds of “songs about the environment” by well-known and lesser-known musicians.[20] In most communities today it is not hard to find local musician-activists who sing to raise environmental consciousness, promote solidarity, and encourage care for the Earth.



Ecomusicology, as the name implies, involves the study of ecology and music. Ecology is the study of organisms (living beings), their relationships with each other, and their relationships with the environment. Ecomusicology is the study of music, sound, culture, nature and the environment in a time of environmental crisis.[21] Ecomusicology brings together composers, musicians, environmental activists, ecologists, and students of music and sound to increase their understanding of the sonic world and its relations with human and other beings, and the environment.[22] Some scholars are especially interested in applying literary ecocriticism to music--that is, in studying the ways composers have incorporated nature and the environment into their ideas about music and their musical compositions themselves. Other eco-musicologists explore the interface between music, sound and the environment more directly. One of these research areas concerns sustainability of natural materials used to make musical instruments.[23] For hundreds of years the finest violin bows have been made of Pernambuco wood, while the finest guitar bodies were constructed of Brazilian rosewood. But these woods currently are endangered, requiring laws to limit their use, and encouraging luthiers to experiment with alternative construction materials. Moreover, research into methods of stewardship and conservation should result in a continued, if limited, supply of traditional materials, while it may be possible to find favorable conditions to grow them outside of their normal ranges, especially in response to habitat change induced by global warming. Other important areas for eco-musicological research involve visiting with and attempting to understand how various native and indigenous peoples think of the sonic universe and its relation to living in harmony with the environment.[24] Long dismissed as superstition, this traditional indigenous knowledge about the healing powers of sound and music has begun to be valued as a way to think about adapting to conditions brought about by the climate emergency. Related to well-being is the research on noise pollution, done by acoustic ecologists on the effects of noise.[25] Sudden loud noise produces a “fight or flight” response while continued loud noise, as near airports, in factories, near quarries, and so on, causes physical and psychological illness, just as a frequently barking neighbor’s dog can drive people to distraction. Public environmental policy requires noise limiting ordinances and other means of noise abatement (acoustic insulation, etc.).



People may think that music streamed over the internet is more environmentally friendly than previous listening formats such as CDs and cassettes, which not only required fossil fuel energy to manufacture them but also, not being recyclable, pile up in landfills. But it takes an enormous amount of energy to operate the servers that store and stream the music. The amount of carbon dioxide emissions from the manufacture, distribution and sale of CDs, vinyl records, and cassettes in the US in 2000 was 157 million kilograms. In 2016, when the revenue from CD sales was roughly 1/8 what it was in 2000, and when streaming and mp3 downloads were the vastly preferred listening formats, the amount of carbon dioxide emissions from internet servers in the US was 350 million kilograms. In other words, despite the transition from CDs to the internet, the amount of carbon dioxide emissions from music listening has nearly doubled. Of course, as electricity comes increasingly from renewable sources, music’s contribution to global warming may decline. In an effort to reduce their carbon footprint, many musicians and bands have introduced more environmentally friendly practices into their music-making and distribution. On their tours, Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Dead and Company, Drake, Walk the Moon, and others reduce carbon use by employing solar energy, distributing reusable water bottles, providing solar charging stations at concerts, and handing out information about environmental issues, green products and tech, and so on. REVERB, an organization created to reduce bands’ energy footprints, sponsors a Farm-to-Stage program that works with local farmers to provide artists and their crews with locally sourced food.[26] In July, 2019 a group of music industry professionals formed an organization called Music Declares Emergency, calling for “the music industry to acknowledge how its practices impact the environment and to commit to taking urgent action” and to “work toward making our businesses ecologically sustainable and regenerative.”[27]



As concern about the well-being of the planet and all of its inhabitants is growing, music and sound make us aware of the plight of our common inheritance: our seas, our air, our forests, our other habitats. We know that the earth song has the power to awaken our environmental awareness and encourage environmental activism. Sound connects beings in the world. In songs of protest and through experimental compositions, we make audible both the strength and vulnerability of our environment, while sonic connections enable our common kinship with it. 



[1] Translated from one of the inner chapters, 齊物論 or The Adjustment of Controversies. See

[2] For example, his entry for May 20, 1854: “The steadily increasing sound of toads and frogs along the river with each successive warmer night is one of the most important peculiarities of the season. Their prevalence and loudness is in proportion to the increased temperature of the day. It is the first earth-song, beginning with the croakers, (the crickets not yet), as if the very meads at last burst into a meadowy song.” See also the entries for Nov. 11, 1850, May 12, 1857, and January 2, 1858. Thoreau’s journals may be found at

[3] See Donald Kroodsma, The Singing Life of Birds (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007).

[4] See Alan Powers, Bird Talk (Berkeley, CA: Frog Books, 2003).

[5] See Bernie Krause, Wild Soundscapes, revised 2nd ed. (Yale University Press, 2016), and The Great Animal Orchestra (Little, Brown Back Bay Books, 2013).

[6] Richard Rath, How Early America Sounded (Cornell University Press, 2005).

[7] In the “Sounds” chapter of Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote about the sounds of the locomotive piercing the natural soundscape in the forest near Walden Pond. For Thoreau these sounds were signals of the Industrial Revolution.

[8] Hear Woody Guthrie and Sonny Terry’s “Railroad Blues” on Folkways FW00AA4_205, The Asch Recordings, 1939 to 1945 - Vol. 2.

[9] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, fiftieth anniversary edition (Houghton Mifflin, 2002).

[10] For example, the Nature Sounds Society of Japan at

[11] See Jeff Todd Titon, “A Sound Commons for All Living Creatures.” Smithsonian Folkways Magazine (Fall-Winter 2012).

[12] For example, the World Listening Project (, and Xeno-canto (for bird songs, Accessed 27 November 2019. Nature Recordists ( and the World Listening Project also formed Yahoo Groups but as of this writing Yahoo Groups is closing and both those communities are migrating to

[13] A performance by Yazhi Guo and Tao He playing the suona and erhu may be seen at

[14] Written by Lü Buweh in the 3th century B.C.E. The music-making events themselves were said to have occurred in the 3rd millennium B.C.E.

[15] These were mythological, immortal creatures, sometimes called the Chinese phoenix, representing both male and female elements (a yin-yang harmony).

[16] See Accessed 27 November 2019.

[17] God Bless the Grass, containing “My Dirty Stream,” Columbia Records CL 2432, reissued in 1982 as Folkways FW27232 and FSS 37232. The album also contained many songs composed by Malvina Reynolds, author of “Little Boxes,” a celebrated song about look-alike housing in suburban developments that mocked middle-class conformity in 1950s America.

[18] Mark Pedelty, A Song to Save the Salish Sea (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016).

[19] See and hear them sing “Watershed” at

[21] Jeff Todd Titon, “The Nature of Ecomusicology,” Mùsica e Cultura, Vol. 18, no. 1, p. 9. Download the article in English at

[22] For more information about ecomusicology see Aaron Allen and Kevin Dawe, eds., Current Directions in Ecomusicology (Routledge, 2016) and the journal Ecomusicology Review (at

[23] Aaron Allen, “Fatto Di Fiemme’: Stradivari’s Violins and the Musical Trees of the Paneveggio,” in Invaluable Trees: Cultures of Nature, 1660-1830, edited by Laura Auricchio, Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook, and Giulia Pacini, pp. 301-315 (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2012).

[24] See, for example, Klisala Harrison, “Aboriginal Music for Well-being in a Canadian Inner City,” MUSICultures, 36 (2009), pp. 1-22. During the intensifying environmental crisis of the past fifty years, Euro-American scholars have increasingly turned to native and indigenous knowledges about the environment for ways for humans to live in harmony with nature. There is a large and continually growing literature in this area from anthropologists such as Philippe Descola, whose In the Society of Nature: a Native Ecology in Amazonia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) was one of the key texts in the last century. Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013) is recognized as a landmark in 21st century environmental studies.

[25] R. Murray Schafer, the pioneer in acoustic ecology who coined the term “soundscape,” has been especially concerned about noise pollution (e.g., in his The Soundscape (New York: Destiny Books, 1993). His thoughts on the subject may be found summarized in a lecture, “The Sounding City,” at

[26] Information about REVERB can be found at

[27] Information about Music Declares Emergency can be found at