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HOW NATURAL ELEMENTS
RESPOND TO MUSIC

waterfalls

Photo of the Iguazu Falls by Shutterstock

MUSIC IS OFTEN CONSIDERED A HUMAN CREATION, BUT IT ORIGINATES FROM MUCH OLDER ANIMAL BEHAVIOR. IN NATURE, EVERYTHING REACTS TO SOUNDS, FROM ANIMALS AND PLANTS TO ROCK AND METAL. PERHAPS THE PLEASURE WE EXPERIENCE LISTENING TO OUR FAVORITE MELODY HAS TO DO WITH OUR MOST PRIMITIVE INSTINCTS MUCH MORE THAN WE IMAGINE.

Words By José M. Sainz-Maza

The pleasure that comes from listening to music is unmatched in the history of human emotions. Almost as if it was a psychotropic drug, it produces a remarkable impact on our brain, transmits sensations of deep ecstasy, and translates us to other states of mind. In some way, music brings us closer to our deepest identity and puts us in a trance state that transcends our physical individuality and connects us to something greater and older than ourselves.

But we are not the only ones who respond to music in a special way. Nature is full of sounds, it never remains silent, and even in the darkest night, you can listen to the harmony of life if you pay attention. From the wind blowing through the canopy to the furtive movements of nocturnal animals, the world is always full of sounds. And they all have a meaning. The melody of the river water running on its bed of stones or the noises that animals make are a certain type of music. After all, it is believed that humans learned to sing while learning to speak, by identifying and elaborating rhythmic patterns to recreate certain sounds.

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” Plato

The sounds of the ritual

We are in the year 2020 of the Gregorian calendar and have been inhabiting the earth for more than 150,000 years. We tend to congregate in groups with behaviors that are sometimes very different but always similar when it comes to certain things. We all have in mind a typical song for a wedding, just as we could recognize a song used on a birthday. How many concerts have you been to in the last five years? Although some styles and rhythms are certainly modern, and we cannot imagine an Inca nobleman dancing to a Shakira song, the truth is that almost all the acts and behaviors that we associate with music have been with us from the very beginning.

Since ancient times, music has accompanied every religious ritual and every social celebration of all human civilizations. Whether it is vocal singing or instrumental music, the hubbub of flutes and timpani or the sober and firm rhythm of the drums, it has always been there. At every wedding, funeral, transitional rite, battle, and holiday. From America to Oceania, from the cold northern Siberia to the warm shores of the Mediterranean, all civilizations have articulated their existence as a community around music. Therefore, it is normal that we find it strange to think of a world without it.

Music is sound, and sound is transmitted through the air through waves. It is a primarily mechanical process of material nature. But that invisible energy transported to our ears makes us feel a deeper bond with the universe. This is how music started: little by little from the basic side of things, from the essence of everything. People did not know what those waves were but perceived their power. Therefore, rhythm often prevailed over the melody in music from ancient civilizations. Many peoples from all continents believed that music was a means of communication with deities and nature. Even later, already in Christian Europe in the Middle Ages, austere sacred music had the mission of elevating the soul and predisposing it to contact with God.

First, people used the voice and some simple instruments, such as goatskin drums or different elements of wood or stone to generate sounds. Later lyres, harps, flutes, crotales, pipes were added. In Egypt, China or Greece music was then standardized as an element of social cohesion and ritual element. It was the tool used to connect ordinary life to the sacred world, often identified with nature. Thus, music brings people closer to everything primal, to the purity of the natural world that arises exists human understanding.

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The animal choir

Music also plays a crucial role in the life of many living beings. Gazelles use their sense of hearing to escape their predators, owls use it to locate their prey, and dolphins to orient themselves thanks to their echolocation system. This is something that sounds familiar to all of us, but sometimes we do not stop to think about it for a moment and we do not realize its true importance. Perhaps we have all heard of the song of the whales or can think of the twittering of the birds in the morning. But there is much more behind that may be less obvious.

Males of many species of birds, rodents, or reptiles emit rhythmic sounds of varying intensity during courtship to attract females. Almost in the same way that the troubadour knights of medieval stories came to sing under their lady’s window, many animals give real concerts in order to be chosen. Other ones react in a special way when they listen to music. Beyond the typical and somewhat outdated image of the snake charmer playing the flute in front of a cobra, it is true that melodic sounds have a notable impact on the behavior of some species.

It is quite easy to find videos of various animals responding to music on the internet. From the very numerous cats and dogs showing excitement or howling to accompany the melody, to cows approaching attracted by the sound of a tuba. Another good example is British pianist Paul Barton, who has spent years helping with his music to ease pain and alleviate the symptoms of elderly and sick elephants at the Thai Elephant World sanctuary. In the 2014 documentary Music for elephants, he recounts how animals react similarly whenever he plays classic pieces for them, paying attention to sounds and staying still and calm throughout the song. Beethoven, Chopin and Schubert seem to be the favorite choices of these elephants.

American songwriter David Teie has also conducted monkey music experiments at the University of Wisconsin-Madison along with primate communication researchers. After analyzing input from Colombian monkeys, he concluded that the intonation of the sounds they produced had a relationship with the mood of the animal. From the discovery, Teie composed songs based on threatening sounds and others made from sounds that were pleasant to these primates. This had the expected effect, making the animals react very differently to the two kinds of pieces of music. While the first ones made them nervous, the latter, nicer ones kept them relaxed. After all, we are not very different from them.

Cymatics and the art of waves

In any case, not everything has to be alive to react to music. Sound is a transmission of energy through waves by a fluid, such as air or water. The most scientific and purely experimental part of working with it is also one of the most extraordinary ones. You may have seen in any movie how an opera singer blows a glass to pieces using just her powerful voice. Well, this can also be done on other materials, obtaining spectacular and incredibly original results. This is what is known as cymatics, the study and application of vibratory modal phenomena, something we at Staiy find incredibly fascinating.

For more than 40 years, musicians and visual artists have played with the possibilities that cymatics offers when creating sound compositions and patterns of great beauty. By applying sound waves of different frequencies on metal plates and modulating their intensity, geometric shapes can be obtained that vary in an almost magical way. Everything that seems solid to us suddenly evolves into something different, almost liquid, almost alive. Using acoustically vibrated plates, synthesizers and other devices created for this purpose, singers like Björk or painters like Jimmy O’Neal have used cymatics to enrich their crafts. The movement of a thin layer of sand moving to the rhythm of the music on Petri dishes, or discovering how a jet of water alters its shape and builds strange angles, is hypnotic.

sea water

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We recommend you take a look at the work of New Zealand composer Nigel Stanford. You will be able to verify that the music generates visual patterns of heartbreaking beauty by impacting at the appropriate frequency on liquid and solid surfaces. It will be somewhat easier to understand why people always thought that there was a divine relationship between music and the Earth.

That alienating feeling or emotional reaction that we experience when listening to music transports us to a plane of reality closer to nature, to what we really are ourselves. It connects us all with what is around us, elevates our spirit, and awakens feelings that we did not remember. Just like ancient tribes and visionary artists did before us, you may like to think as well about this the next time you have a quiet moment alone and decide to put on your headphones and daydream while listening to your favorite songs. As with nature responding to melodic vibrations, let the music be your guide and feel its power through your body.

Nigel Stanford Cymatics Experiment