Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: From ants to birds to whales, there's a soundscape to be marvelled at

In nature's collective voice, we can locate the origins of human music, even language

A A A

When I first heard the term soundscape I was taken aback, because it perfectly described what I was listening to: a whole series of different warbler species singing heartily on a spring day in the Norfolk Broads. I was taken aback because I suddenly realised that they were not singing each in isolation, but as part of something bigger, a whole layer of aural existence of which I had been sublimely ignorant. You could look at the landscape; and at the same time, you could listen to the soundscape. There it was.

An extraordinarily skilled naturalist pointed it out to me, and changed forever my perception of birdsong, and even of the natural world. He showed me that remarkable events were taking place in sound right in front of us: a sedge warbler in a bramble patch was mimicking perfectly the calls of a range of other, quite dissimilar birds, from linnets to greenshanks, and was doing it to impress female sedge warblers and secure a mate: almost like a young man at a party with a guitar. I became aware that the sound all around us, and by extension, throughout nature, was not random squawks and tweets and whistles, not abstract background noise like the muzak in a hotel lift, but had meaning, and could be deconstructed and decoded, and that the whole was more than the sum of the parts.

It's a fairly new concept, the soundscape, "the concerto of the natural world." The term itself is usually credited to the Canadian composer and naturalist R Murray Schafer, but one man in particular has made it his life's work to explore it and to document it. Bernie Krause was a folk singer and session guitarist who became interested in electronic music in the San Francisco of the late 1960s – he was one of the first musicians to take up the synthesiser – but as the 60s became the 70s, he found himself more and more drawn to recording the sound array of nature.

Over 40 years he has archived the sounds of more than 15,000 species, from snapping shrimps to humpback whales, from ants singing to gibbons duetting at dawn, from corn growing to murmuring giraffes. He has created a vocabulary to help us understand the ensemble, as we might say. Geophony (which I think we should pronounce jeeoffanny) means natural sounds from non-biological sources such as wind and rain and earth movements: the first sounds on earth, and the context for sounds made by living creatures, which Krause terms biophony (again, I think we should say byeoffanny). And in contrast to them both is anthrophony (let's say anthroffanny) which covers the sounds made by human beings, and quickly becomes Noise with a capital N, and drowns out the others, just as our streetlights have come to obscure the stars.

Using such concepts, and also using sonograms, pictures of sound over time, Krause has elucidated the wonders of the soundscape, and wonders they are. Two discoveries stand out. The first is that every organism has a unique sound signature, no matter how minute: "When viruses let go from a surface they've been attached to, they create a detectable sonic spike." The second is that in nature's symphony, everything fits together: organisms have evolved to use unoccupied sound channels, of time, loudness, or frequency, so they do not drown each other out in a cacophony (Krause calls this "niche discrimination"); instead, they form a collective voice, "the acoustic harmony of the wild".

All this magnificent, if arcane, knowledge has now been brought together by Krause in a masterly tour of the soundscape. Entitled The Great Animal Orchestra (Profile Books, £12.99), it makes a convincing case for the soundscape's overlooked value, partly for itself, and partly as an indication of the health of the natural world, and for one overwhelming reason for us as humans: in nature's collective voice, he says, can be located the origins of human music, and perhaps even human language.

Now, though, it is threatened like so much else, and Krause ends with a plea: "The whisper of every leaf and creature implores us to love and care for the fragile tapestry of the biophony, which – after all – was the first music our species heard."

Cover your ears for this shrimp

Some animals, such as toothed whales like the sperm whale, Krause writes, can generate sound levels that, if produced in the air, "would be equivalent to a large-bore firearm being discharged a few inches from your ear."

However, the loudest organism in the animal world may be a creature right at the opposite end of the scale in terms of size: the inch-and-a-half long snapping shrimp, which can produce an explosive signal with its single large claw exceeding 200 decibels underwater, equivalent to about 165 decibels in the air.

By contrast, the Grateful Dead, sometimes thought of as the world's loudest rock band, come in at about 130 decibels.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/@mjpmccarthy

Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Arts and Entertainment
Al Pacino in ‘The Humbling’, as an ageing actor
filmHam among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
News
Fifi Trixibelle Geldof with her mother, Paula Yates, in 1985
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Mario Balotelli in action during his Liverpool debut
football ...but he can't get on the scoresheet in impressive debut
Environment
Pigeons have been found with traces of cocaine and painkillers in their system
environmentCan species be 'de-extincted'?
Arts and Entertainment
booksExclusive extract from Howard Jacobson’s acclaimed new novel
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
A Pilgrim’s Progress is described by its publisher as “the one-and-only definitive record” of David Hockney's life and works
people
Sport
Loic Remy signs for Chelsea
footballBlues wrap up deal on the eve of the transfer window
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker
TV
Life and Style
Instagram daredevils get thousands of followers
techMeet the daredevil photographers redefining urban exploration with death-defying stunts
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'
TVDaughter says contestant was manipulated 'to boost ratings'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£85 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: randstad education require a ...

SEN Teacher - Hull

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are recruiting for spe...

Primary Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd are seeking EY...

Primary Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: NEWLY QUALIFIED TEACHER WE CAN HELP ...

Day In a Page

Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor