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The Use of Zoology in Musicology

by admin on December 1, 2016

In today’s environmentally focused world, issues such as global warming and protection of endangered species have led us to look for new ways to use everyday resources. One of the ways we utilize what is available to us through nature is music. Composers are striving for unique ways to weave this everyday “noise” into the music that we spend hundreds of hours listening to. This noise includes man-made sounds but also nature sounds, including the sounds of animals, bugs, and even plants. But what of the ethics of using other living creatures to generate these ear pleasing sounds? Do we use the sounds for our own leisure, or do we use them to increase awareness and prove that humans and animals could co-exist together in society?

Wait a minute: bugs and animals can make music? David Rothenberg, a jazz composer, naturalist, author, and eco-enthusiast, thinks so. He has emerged as one of the key innovators in a new musicological-zoological genre. Being a performer and a composer, Rothenberg pursued creating music that was far from ordinary by presenting the familiar sounds we hear every day as musical. His use of animals first began with pieces included in his selections “Why Birds Sing” and “Whale Music” The use of the familiar sounds of the birds we grow up listening to to create a calming jazz tune helped to establish this unusual genre of music. This type of unintentional and relaxed composition was evoked in yet another production by David Rothenberg called “Whale Music.” For years, people have studied the sounds of the humpback whale and used it as a basis for composition. The creation of “Whale Music” was different, however, because it was not about what sounds we (as humans) could take from the whale, nor what we could do for the animal, but rather about how animals and humans could help each other and benefit from one another.

Seemingly more bizarre than using animals in music is Rothenberg’s use of insects. He strived to prove that humans and ecosystems could peacefully come together by using the seventeen-year cicada. Rothenberg (with the help of Pauline Oliveros and Timothy Hill) created a set of small concerts to be performed using the harmonic sounds of the cicada to produce a rich and new form of music, unlike anything that people had ever heard. The famous “Cicada Dream Band” was entirely different from any other group of the time; they had something a little bit “buggy” about their music. The use of ecology in creating sounds, beats, rhythms and anthems that can be woven into music is far out of the comfort zone for many of us as listeners, and the question of whether they can or should be considered willing participants is open to debate. But these new innovations will certainly help to keep music new and interesting.

By Kailey Hackett


“DAVIDROTHENBERG.NET.” DAVIDROTHENBERG.NET. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2016./.latest_citation_text

Admin. “Ecomusics & Ecomusicologies 2014: Dialogues.” Ecomusics Ecomusicologies 2014 Dialogues. UNCA, 2014. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

Anna Lee Skinner December 6, 2016 at 6:05 pm

Nice picture at the top. You also managed to make me interested in what David Rothenberg had to say and I think he’s rather mad so well done. I liked your focus on the insect music and how you brought in the environment.

Christian T Smith December 6, 2016 at 4:30 pm

I really liked getting to read about more than just birds, or just whales in this article. I think your inclusion of the music of multiple species made the topic more clear. I thought it was super interesting to consider the ethics of using animals in music, something that I haven’t previously paid any mind to. Overall I feel that the main idea of this article was very clear and it had a good flow to it.

Sarah Chao December 6, 2016 at 4:03 pm

I like how you kept the article neutral, keeping all options open in the interpretation of noise and music. Your writing is concise and flows very well! I thought the whale song was so interesting to listen to, as the pitches went up and down. Also, I really enjoyed listening to the Cicada Dream band which was something I’ve never heard before. It made me feel uneasy but it was super intriguing.

Catherine Allen December 6, 2016 at 12:09 pm

I found it very interesting when you talked about the ethics of using animals in music. This isn’t something that a lot of people usually think about. I also thought it was a good idea how you related the topic back to environmental issues and how this type of music works alongside them. I also liked how you focused on David Rothenberg’s use of insects as that piece of music usually doesn’t get talked about too much.

Lea Gilbert December 5, 2016 at 9:32 pm

I like how this article focused on the idea of man-made and nature-made sounds coming together. It’s not just whale sounds we hear in “Whale Music,” but David Rothenberg playing his clarinet right alongside it. His combination of man and nature made music create a harmony showing that there can be cooperation and communication through both to each other.

Emma Berg December 4, 2016 at 10:44 pm

I like how you bring up the question about ethics regarding using animals in music. Also, I like how you highlight birds, whales, and insects in music which gives the reader a good perspective about the variety of things that can occur within this genre. In addition, the introduction was good because it relates environmental issues to this genre of music and clarify why they can help each other.

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