Music exists in many ways. For one person, it can be the pleasant melody of a guitar strumming. The signature warm timbre that is characteristic of the instrument’s mahogany body is just pure enjoyment.
For others, there is pleasure to be found in the resonant, thunderous bass that reverberates in the ears while each foot pounds out a matching staccato. Yes, nothing beats a well-needed run with a favourite pair of wireless earphones.
But that’s not all there is – what is perceived as music differs from individual to individual. And sometimes, no human touch is required at all. Think along the lines of the haunting calls of whales, deep within the depths of the ocean; or high up in the trees, when the wind rustles the leaves and creates a symphony made from (and by) the elements of nature itself.
Science has dubbed this type of sound as “biomusic”, which is a form of experimental music using sounds created or performed by non-humans. In biomusic, sometimes also known as “eco-music”, singing or vocalizing is usually excluded from the definition.
From Whales To Crickets To Birds
One of the most well-known producers of biomusic is none other than the whale. Humpback whales and blue whales produce a series of repetitive sounds at varying frequencies, which experts believe are used for either mate selection, echolocation or maybe even purely for aesthetic enjoyment. Often featured prominently in pop culture, whale song has been sampled in music and movies since the 1970s.
Singer Judy Collins’s Farewell To Tarwathie pays homage to the mournful whale song, featuring recordings provided by biologist Roger Payne, who obtained them from sound engineer Frank Watlington.
Included in her album Whales And Nightingales, the song garnered worldwide attention and inspired a movement to save the whales. Collins devoted a portion of the album’s royalties to Payne’s work, and soon, the US went on to ban all whaling and whale products.
Cricket enthusiast Lars Fredriksson is one such man who recognised the beauty of biomusic. Cricket singing is not atypical in China, after all. People would traditionally let their crickets “perform” one at a time, keeping them in tiny gilded cages which could be taken anywhere like a portable Bluetooth speaker.
Fredriksson went on to breed hundreds of these singing crickets, even inviting notable musicians to perform together with his troupe. To complete the experience, Fredriksson also produced an album solely dedicated to his beloved crickets in 2006, entitled Listening To Autumn: 108 Chinese Crickets Conducted By Lars Fredriksson.
Moving into more current times, French artist Celeste Boursier-Mougenot is no stranger to the biomusic scene. Known for his sonic dispositives “From Here to Ear”, Boursier-Mougenot constructs an environment for inquisitive finches to explore, feed and rest. These unintentional interactions between bird and installation result in an altogether different type of birdsong.
Let The Trees Sing For You
Roald Dahl fans would probably remember the short story The Sound Machine. In it, Klausner, a man obsessed with sound, creates a machine that records sounds inaudible to the human ear.
To test his machine, he pulls a daisy from the ground and hears a faint cry. But as he takes an axe to a tree in the park, he hears a shriek. However, he seems to be the only person to hear anything – his neighbour and doctor do not.
Transforming this fantasy into reality is the Bamboo M, a device that takes the electromagnetic variations from a plant and translates them into sound, achieved via a MIDI interface that transforms the plant’s resistance from leaf to root into music.
To listen to any plant sing, simply clip the electrode to a leaf on said plant, and place the sensor on the ground. With a choice of 128 musical instruments to choose from, your plant can now make endless types of music to your heart’s desire.
Listening To Your Body
Although biomusic is usually defined as music performed by non-humans, the sounds created by our body parts is also categorised as such. Music From The Body is a wonderful example of what magical tunes can be derived from the unassuming (and often embarrassing) gurgles, grunts, squeaks and toots that come out from the many nooks and crevices of the human body.
Created by Pink Floyd member Roger Waters and composer Ron Geesin, the album was an accompaniment to the 1970 scientific documentary film, The Body. With unique song names ranging from the likes of March Past Of The Embryos to Red Stuff Writhe and Mrs. Throat Goes Walking, what was a novel experience for music lovers back in the 70s surprisingly doesn’t sound out of place in 2021.
If you’ve always dreamt of transforming your own body into a musical instrument, Playtronica’s TouchMe lets you explore the possibilites of creating tunes unique to your movements. Founder Sasha Pas explains: “When people touch each other, a lot of energy is coming back and forth. If we can turn that into electronics and in turn, transform it into sound, then we can have music that we generate while we’re exchanging emotions.”
Depending on the intensity of touch, you can create harmonies alone, with a friend, or by connecting the MIDI device to something else, like a glass of water or even a pineapple.
The Possibilities Of Biomusic
All in all, biomusic, as an experimental genre, remains an acquired taste for some. But for children with autism, it just might be the answer to unlocking their self-expression. In a Frontiers In Neuroscience study, biomedical engineers Stefanie Blain-Moraes and Elaine Biddiss recorded the biomusic of children in anxiety-inducing and non-anxiety-inducing situations.
Surprisingly, adults who listened to the playback were able to tell which child was experiencing anxiety. Tonic chords and tempos were used to track differences in skin temperature, blood volume pulse and respiration – an incredibly helpful resource for caregivers of autistic children who were not able to express themselves emotively.
For those seeking mindfulness, biomusic also comes in handy to help you relax. Feel a sense of calm wash over you as you surround yourself with the pitter-patter of raindrops on leaves, the chirping of birds, or if you desire, the warm crackling of firewood. Meditation and mindfulness expert Andy Puddicombe shares his expertise through Headspace, a meditation-centric application. Apart from offering guided meditation techniques, Headspace also has an interesting Sleepcast feature that combines soothing storytelling with biomusic in the background, gently lulling you to sleep without having to count any sheep.
Cover Credit: OIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images
Writer | Michelle Tan
Lover of all things bizarre, Michelle has a soft spot for dinosaurs, raccoons and a strong G&T. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.