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GUEST,Futwick Insects and Music (46) Insects and Music 21 Apr 13

Do you think humans got at least some musical ideas from the sounds of insects? I was listening to some Arabic music and there was this fiddle that kept playing in this wavering tone that reminded me irrepressibly of a bee in flight. So I went on youtube and just looked around at random and here is an example.

Arabic fiddle

Although this is a Western violin, the music was taken from the kemenche or spiked fiddle that was popular throughout the Middle East, South and Central Asia and going all the way into the Far East. The original spiked fiddles are believed to be of Central Asian origin and these nomadic peoples were avid beekeepers. They rubbed the wood of their hunting bows with beeswax to protect them from the elements. When they started playing a bowed instrument, did it naturally occur to them to mimic the humming of a bee even if they did not do so consciously?

One of the oldest bowed instruments is the kyl kobyz of Central Asia. In the following clip, it sounds at times almost like American country fiddle but at other times takes on that strange, warbling bee-buzzing quality.

kyl kobyz music

Many of our English words are onomatopoeic and taken from nature. Words like "buzz" for example. But so are words we don't often think of that way as "wind" and "wing". You have to create a wind to say these words. "Wing" is the sound of a wing cutting the air. so why not our musical ideas? Language and music, after all, are both forms of communication.

Certainly the American Indians of woods and plains found something very musical and rhythmic in the chirps of crickets. The cricket choruses sound like an entire percussion section at times. Katydids sound irrepressibly like the Latin American guiro.


The guiro also sounds very much like cicada calls. How could the Indians have possibly ignored the mating season of cicada when the woods and air vibrate with the sounds of thousand of male cicadas calling for females. And what makes the sound? Like drums the males carry on their abdomens called tymbals--vibrating membranes. It is the basis of virtually all our music instruments. Drums and banjos but also violins and guitars except the membrane is a thin, finely worked piece of wood we call the belly (which again makes one think of the cicada).

Japanese haiku and Chinese poetry abound with references to cicada calls so obviously these poets found the sound musical and thrilling (in the woods of Pennsylvania, the sound is deafening and almost fearsome). Only in the Eastern US do we find the periodical cicada--namely, the 13-year and 17-year "locust." Strange that both use prime numbers for their life-cycle periods and that they are so carefully timed. So much so that they are classified as "magicicada" and opposed to the annual cicadas that abound in our trees every year. These are classified "cicadae."

The magicicada are classified in broods. There are 13 broods of 17-year cicada and 4 broods of 13-year cicada. The link below lists the different broods and their distribution. In my state, we have only Brood X which is not due to return until 2021. Brood II is due this spring throughout Virginia, the Carolinas, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, etc. For those who live outside the eastern half of the US. Sorry, you'll have to come here to witness the emergence of the magicicada. They aren't found anywhere else.

Cicada broods

Cicada call

In many cultures, male cicadas are kept in cages to sing out their souls for the enjoyment of their human captors. I have noticed have strangely similar a single cicada call is to slowly drawing a bow over a cello or bass string until the instrument throbs and then the throbbing subsides into little phonemes of tone.

The natives of Australia and Indonesia use instruments that seem to be consciously mimicking the sounds of insects--particularly crickets or cicadas but also flies, bees, wasps and frogs.

Whether or not the didgeridoo was meant to mimic the sound of a cicada, it is extremely reminiscent of standing in the woods of Virginia during the mating season only imagine this at about 100 dB:


So did our musical instruments evolve from insect sounds in the woods, plains, and rainforests that we shamanistically communed with? You do tend to lose yourself in those sounds when you're out in the wild. Was it originally our way of joining in?

But it's more than just that. Insects had the music in them. Read about this critter:

Archaboilus musicus is an extinct bush-cricket that lived during the Jurassic period 165 million years ago.[1]
Although behaviors are difficult to reconstruct for extinct species, in 2012 British scientists recreated the cricket's call based on a well preserved fossil from China.[1][2]
Based on studies, it is believed that male A. musicus produced pure-tone (musical) songs using a resonant mechanism tuned at a frequency of 6.4 kHz.[2]

Its perfect wings produced a tone between D# and E, an octave and a half above middle C.

Why then did its descendants lose the pure tones? No one really knows except perhaps the areas where this creature roamed were uncluttered and so evolved tones that insectivores in the area would have a hard time picking up. When those insectivores--essentially dinosaurs--died out, so did the need for pure tone sounds. But that's just a guess.

Even gongs and cymbals have a cicada-like quality to them and, not surprisingly, cicadas that produce that strange metallic quality are heard in China and when they congregate for mating season, the din is unearthly and sounds Chinese music, surreal Chinese music. Here is a single Chinese cicada--and again notice how incredibly similar it is to the didgeridoo:

Chinese cicada

Imagine what chorus of thousands sound like.

So, here is the true root of folk music but the most numerous folk on the planet--the 6-legged folk who surge all about us that we largely ignore despite all that they've taught us.

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