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.
EARTH SONG: MUSIC AND THE ENVIRONMENT
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?” Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journals of the comforting hum of the “earth song,” the music made by frogs, crickets, and other animals. 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. 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? 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.
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. 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. 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. What might Rachel Carson have meant when she titled her book about pesticide misuse Silent Spring?
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. 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). Today’s international sound collectors get together on the internet to share their recordings and technical expertise.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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). 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. The Hypoxic Punks sing about environmental problems in their home city of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Wikipedia lists hundreds of “songs about the environment” by well-known and lesser-known musicians. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.”
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.
 Translated from one of the inner chapters, 齊物論 or The Adjustment of Controversies. See https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/zhuang-zhou-zhuangzi#toc3.
 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 https://www.walden.org/collection/journals/.
 See Donald Kroodsma, The Singing Life of Birds (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007).
 See Alan Powers, Bird Talk (Berkeley, CA: Frog Books, 2003).
 See Bernie Krause, Wild Soundscapes, revised 2nd ed. (Yale University Press, 2016), and The Great Animal Orchestra (Little, Brown Back Bay Books, 2013).
 Richard Rath, How Early America Sounded (Cornell University Press, 2005).
 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.
 Hear Woody Guthrie and Sonny Terry’s “Railroad Blues” on Folkways FW00AA4_205, The Asch Recordings, 1939 to 1945 - Vol. 2.
 Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, fiftieth anniversary edition (Houghton Mifflin, 2002).
 For example, the Nature Sounds Society of Japan at http://naturesoundsjp.blogspot.com/.
 See Jeff Todd Titon, “A Sound Commons for All Living Creatures.” Smithsonian Folkways Magazine (Fall-Winter 2012). https://folkways.si.edu/magazine-fall-winter-2012-sound-commons-living-creatures/science-and-nature-world/music/article/smithsonian.
 For example, the World Listening Project (https://www.worldlisteningproject.org/), and Xeno-canto (for bird songs, https://www.xeno-canto.org/) Accessed 27 November 2019. Nature Recordists (http://www.naturesongs.com/naturerecordists.html) 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 Groups.io.
 A performance by Yazhi Guo and Tao He playing the suona and erhu may be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3wFEIMads0.
 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.
 These were mythological, immortal creatures, sometimes called the Chinese phoenix, representing both male and female elements (a yin-yang harmony).
 See https://ecomusicology.info/. Accessed 27 November 2019.
 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.
 Mark Pedelty, A Song to Save the Salish Sea (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016).
 See and hear them sing “Watershed” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pfJFCBNkqOs.
 Jeff Todd Titon, “The Nature of Ecomusicology,” Mùsica e Cultura, Vol. 18, no. 1, p. 9. Download the article in English at http://www.abet.mus.br/revista/.
 For more information about ecomusicology see Aaron Allen and Kevin Dawe, eds., Current Directions in Ecomusicology (Routledge, 2016) and the journal Ecomusicology Review (at https://ecomusicology.info/.
 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).
 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.
 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 https://www.david-howes.com/senses/sensing-the-city-lecture-RMurraySchafer.htm.
 Information about REVERB can be found at https://reverb.org.
 Information about Music Declares Emergency can be found at https://www.musicdeclares.net/.