Form in Music and Nature

Form in Music was the title of my college music theory textbook. Form gives music its shape. The music is paced in the moment by the tempo, but the larger shape is made by passages that repeat and develop, by the musical events that interject and interrupt and flow into each other, and how the music builds to some kind of climax of complexity, of loudness, of glorious or dreadful feeling.

A couple of weeks ago, in the morning, I sat on a high porch by a quiet lake. The breeze was beginning to rise and the kingfishers were rattling to each other along the shore. I had slept through the early morning of bird activity. I heard repeating musical phrases from various birds across the stage around me, but there was no development or general buildup or climactic moments that hour. The musical form of nature’s soundscape is on a larger time scale. It’s full of repetition and variation, but in our normal listening time spans, there’s usually no development and climax in each 5 minute or 30-minute listening period, although as animals pass through there may be some interjected event with a flurry of audible activity. The arrival of a thunderstorm is definitely a climactic moment!

The soundscape is full of repetition and variation, but there doesn’t seem to be development and climax if we listen for just a little while. However, if we compare different parts of the day, we can hear different levels of activity that vary in the complexity of audible interactions.

When I woke in the perfectly still night, there were just a few sounds: distant hoots of two owls on opposite shores, occasional sproings of green frogs (but no bull frogs; they’re still missing since the 2009 fall drawdown of the lake). Then I heard the wild calls of 2 or 3 loons. The still water meant the sound echoed off the hills like a large resonant cathedral: clear, not loud. It was the climax of the gentle night music, not grandiose or loud or complex, but unique, strange, otherworldly. I only heard it for 2 or 3 minutes, then no more.

If each 24-hour day is like a symphony, then the night is the long meditative slow music that continues attacca into the finale, the complex texture of a multitude of birds at dawn. The rest of the day interweaves human activity and nature, with nature’s sounds often taking a back seat. Is the early evening the symphony’s scherzo, with peepers and insects and last calls of day birds?

Nature’s soundscape has a yearly cycle too, although in our buttoned-up houses and with earbuds in our ears when we go out, we may be missing it. If you stop the electronic input and listen to the sounds around you, what do you hear? Is there any of nature’s soundscape left where you are? Are your nights quiet with gentle sounds breaking the silence or full of buzzing insects? Are there meditative moments or excited climaxes in the sounds around you?

Listen to some of my nature soundscape recordings made in Costa Rica and the Florida Everglades.

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