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How Nature Makes Music


by Jim Nollman (© Jim Nollman 2000)

Generally people have the perception that only human beings sing songs and create music. If they paid closer attention and listened, they would find that nature creates music on its own behalf, sometimes utilizing the same scales, rhythms, and harmonies, as humans do. Trekking locally, I recently encountered twin cascades dropping into a wonderland of pools. Stopping to listen closely, I observed that the cascades were tuned in perfect thirds.

I backed up twenty feet, trying to pick out the trace of a song emerging from the falls and the pools. This is no easy task, demanding equal parts concentration and imagination.Years ago, while on a backpack through the Sierra Nevada range, I made it my job to learn how to optimize listening, and often camped beside promising waters to study the aesthetics of stream song. Pleasing tones seem to emerge best just after dusk, when the air cools down and vapor collects in the canyon bottoms to enhance the bass tones concealed by the dry heat of the day. I noticed that water falling over a rock may produce distinct intervals of notes, essentially rhythms, that either harmonize or cancel intervals created in nearby falls. Water dropping short distances into deep pools produces the most musical tones. Like taking in a distant view through tall trees, a song may alter inexorably as a person moves a few feet in either direction.

A man I once met on a trail on the upper Kings River insisted that certain streams hold every song ever sung. After testing his statement for years, I conclude that he overstated the case. Large roaring streams may contain every song, but they achieve this dubious distinction by producing white noise that buries all the pure tones. It's like saying radio static holds every song. The width and depth of a stream, its rate of flow, and its angle of descent mostly determine musical potential. Large roaring streams are too noisy to be musical. Lax-flowing streams are too quiet. Mere drips falling down a stairway of ledges into deep pools usually provide the most pleasing timbres, although they generate too little variety of tones to grant the human imagination free reign in picking and choosing notes to create an actual song. The most musical streams vary between two and six feet in width. They often lie just above or below alpine meadows where the land is sufficiently canted to produce falls, although never more than two feet in height.

Wright Creek, located a few miles southwest of California's Mount Whitney was the most musical creek I ever experienced. I camped on a ledge just below an enormous lake-strewn meadow and above a steep canyon that disappeared into a forest. The first evening I listened to an infinitely deep baritone singing El Toreador for nearly half an hour. I was stunned by the performance, and decided to stay another night. The second evening, the singer sounded like Elvis crooning a ballad I'd never heard before. I felt certain that if, somehow, I could have gone backward in time to 1958, and then guided Elvis to this very spot, the song we both heard would have been one of his greatest hits. I conclude that some of humanity's most ancient tunes were learned by our distant ancestors while camped on the slopes above musical streams. Music they heard rising from the falling waters, they attributed to fairies-water spirits--who hid in the rock cavities by day and emerged at dusk to start their all night songfests. No doubt, someone in the tribe of listeners learned the tune and taught it to the rest of his people. The people may have named certain streams after individual fairies. And when their progeny revisited the same stream a hundred years hence, the tribe's songline map of the mountains cued them to listen to the same fairy singing a tune they now knew by heart.

©2000, Jim Nollman

Jim Nollman is a musician and founder of Interspecies Inc. a nonprofit organization that publishes the Interspecies Newsletter and is best known for a 25 year program of musical communication with free-swimming cetaceans.

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