Insect Thrumming As Deep Music: On David Rothenberg’s “Bug Music”


“One sound can be enough if it repeats enough enough enough times so the meaning becomes subservient to the sound”–David Rothenberg, Bug Music (114)

There is a powerful idea behind David Rothenberg’s spirited recent book, Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm And Noise, which is this: listening to the rhythmic and buzzing sounds of insects such as cicadas and crickets and katydids can teach us about music by helping us hear “beyond the scales and chords of human sense” (11). In fact, the complex, interlocking, and noisy sounds of insects may be the original model that inspired human musical practices in the first place. After all, these sounds are music-like–“immediately accessible, emotional, and interesting” (11). We just need to pay attention to their soundscape.

Bug Music is a timely book too because this summer is the time of a giant cicada emergence. Cicadas are periodical insects that emerge once every 17 years and this year’s emergence, known as Brood II, will take place along the Eastern seaboard  of the United States over the next few months. (For more information, see

Through a half-dozen chapters, Rothenberg follows his insectoid muse, digging through scientific research, historical literature that mentions insect sound, philosophy, and finds connections with music theory, ethnomusicology, electronic music synthesis, and visual art. He also makes field recordings of insects, plays clarinet with them, remixes them, and even invites an overtone singing friend to make more music out in the field. Along the way we meet interesting bug researchers and bug music enthusiasts and get a sense of Rothenberg’s ongoing curiosity about the deep connections between human music and the sounds of the natural world. (Rothenberg has also written books about birdsong and whale music.) There’s so much probing stuff here that touches on serious musical issues, while the narrative is always playful and loose. It’s a perfect combination. Reading him, you feel like you’re along for a fun, interesting, and sometimes wacky road trip.

For me, one of the most compelling themes in the book is the rhythmic phenomenon of insect chorusing: how huge groups of insects like crickets make their collective thrum. Research has found that insect chorusing follows a simple response-mechanism that produces “interesting rhythms of astonishing complexity” (76). Each insect times their sound and its duration relative to what is going on around them, and the result is “the potential for thousands of rhythmic divisions at all levels of pulse and design” (92). What is interesting here is how each insect does its own independent thing, thereby contributing to the thick rhythmic texture of the mass chorusing. As Rothenberg suggests the “appeal of the insect model for in-phase, out-of-phase rhythms” (110), it’s hard not to think about those human musics that are organized along similar lines. Later in the book, Rothenberg describes the musical value of chorusing insects as “hundreds of independent, irregular rhythms, perhaps listening to each other, perhaps following their own internal drummers, all but part of a giant rhythmic surge…” (200). Insects help us “find ways of delving deeper into the periodic possibilities of repeating structures” (ibid.). Still he wonders: “How can it sound so much like it makes sense even though no one is in charge?” (192)

Which leads to a big question: Did we–humankind–learn our love of rhythm “from listening to the polyrhythmic swirls of the entomological soundscape” (99)? Rothenberg thinks so. “Nature is full of oscillators” (93) and insects “are our original teachers of rhythm” (173) he says. He can’t prove this, of course, but still urges us to “listen outward and expand our acoustic consciousness” (98), not to mention our consciousness of time itself. Chorusing insects present a model of multiple time scales sounding simultaneously, and Rothenberg observes that there “is a way to look at all of music as a hierarchy of levels in the experience of time” (85).

Rothenberg is adept at making analogical connections too. Levels of time scales find their analog in vertical layers of a sonogram of an insect soundscape that Rothenberg includes in the book. Here, Rothenberg compares a sonogram of a recording of singing by BaBenzele forest-dwelling people from Central African Republic that includes the sounds of crickets, cicadas, katydids and frogs (“every creature has its place amid the sonic frequencies”, p.157) with a musical transcription of a performance by a choir and drum ensemble in Ghana. It’s an interesting comparison in that both feature

“repeating simple patterns, overlapping, each at distinct places on the sonic sphere, independent, but fitting together in a way that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, the key property of any polyrhythmic, emergent musical order” (160).

Polyrhythms and emergent musical orders lead to another interesting thread in the book: the connection between insect sound and electronic music aesthetics. Or rather, how electronic music can help us understand insect sound. Rothenberg is particularly interested in the technology known as granular synthesis that enables musicians “to work fluently with insect-type noises and make music out of them” (86). He cites the electronic musician Curtis Roads, author of the granular synthesis manual, Microsound (MIT Press, 2004), who writes that granular synthesis helps us shift our idea of music “away from sharply defined intervals towards curvilinear and fuzzy morphologies” (90). In some of the most engaging passages of the book, Rothenberg describes his ongoing experiments with software synthesizers to make “complex thrumming textural”, insect-like sounds (187). Instruments such as the Zebra synth can make evolving soundscapes that behave like chorusing insects. As Rothenberg plays with the software he muses that so “little is written on the power of texture and timbre in the history and theory of music” (192-193). Perhaps it is through texture and timbre (and rhythm) that we can “go deeper into these edge-musics we can barely explain” (196).

By the book’s end, Rothenberg is playing clarinet with cicadas (while his son contributes a little iPad), trying to insert himself right into nature’s sound mix by contributing his own tones. The meta-lesson here has an ecological edge: that we’re all part of the same soundscape, each of us contributing our voice to the whole. In sum, Bug Music urges us to take seriously the “swirling and complicated sound textures” of insect soundscapes because doing so will change how we listen and how we think about what music is and its role in our lives. At the very least, insect sounds serve as a reminder that if there could be such thing as a universal kind of music, it might well be a densely layered, rhythmic, repeating, and communal kind of thing.

On Music In Its Context: Noise Musicians Improvising In The Subway

The Union Square subway station in New York City is a pretty loud place. As the N, R, L, 4, 5, and 6 trains pull into the station there’s some serious, 90-plus decibel metallic screeching happening when the cars hit their breaks and come to a stop.

Given this noisy soundscape, I was both surprised and not surprised to encounter two noise/free-improv musicians holding forth on the 4, 5, and 6 platform. One guy plays the saxophone, the other an electric guitar fed through some effects pedals. Their music is noisy, ad hoc and chaotic, the sax player ripping through atonal lines, squawks and wheezes, while the guitarist strums a constant rhythmic drone in the upper octaves of his instrument. Sometimes it’s not even quite clear how their parts relate to one another. And while there are moments of melody and space, for the most part this isn’t easy listening material. It’s intense.

Their music making is a perfect example of the importance of hearing music in its context of production. I’ve watched some listeners look at these musicians and shake their heads derisively, as if saying: “Why on earth are you making noise in this already noisy place?” But another way to listen to them is as commentators on our environment–interpreting the industrial sounds around us and transforming them into a variety of music. It’s in this way that music has always felt like a kind of alchemy.

Not everyone is buying it though–some folks just plug their ears and shake their heads as they walk by. But I gave the guys money because their music and choice of performance venue made me stop for a moment and think.

On The Sounds Of Finance

I had been meaning to make a field recording of an ATM for a while, so last week, mid-transaction and realizing that I had forgotten yet again to hit record on my phone/recorder, I set a reminder for this week. When this week arrived I was ready to go!

On this recording you hear me approaching an ATM, one of eight in the ground floor lobby of a bank. I insert my banking card, type in my pin number, select an account, select deposit, insert a check, confirm the check amount, select further transactions, select transfer money, select from which account, type in the amount, select a receipt for the transactions, crumple the receipt in my hand, and then leave the lobby and head out to a busy street.

If there is a theme here it’s that my banking transaction consists, sound-wise, of a lot of beeping and zero talking. Listening to my recording and thinking about it now, it occurs to me that ATM manufacturers–actually, any maker of commercial electronic equipment–would do well to think about the sounds its machines make. Instead of just clinical, fixed-pitched beeps, how about other, more adventurous sounds? Sounds like chimes, crickets, or maybe giggling (for whenever you make withdrawals)? Carefully chosen sounds can create very different “user experiences.”


Speaking of user experiences: I remember some years ago Amtrak had an automated telephone operator with voice recognition who you could “talk” to and who would “listen” to your Amtrak-related queries. Typical conversation:

Operator: “Okay, where would you like to go?”

Me: “Boston.”

Operator: “I think you said, ‘not sure.’ Is this correct?”

Me: “No.”

Operator: “Okay, let’s try again.”

Me: “—” (sigh).

And on the  awkward conversation went, with me speaking in ever exaggerated tones.

Operator: “If you require assistance, say “Operator.'”


Finally, I was understood.

But the best part came next, when the automated operator, feigning comprehension of my verbal request, would say “Hold on while I check that for you” and then make this strangely rhythmic percussion sound. It was kind of like woodblocks played with chopsticks–sixteenth notes at about 140 beats per minute. This charmed me when I realized that the operator’s mouth percussion was intended to represent the sound of someone thinking. Brilliant! I occasionally make this percussive sound myself, just for fun, when I’m not thinking about much at all.


I don’t know if Amtrak still uses this “thinking” sound, but the ATM manufacturers could take a page out of that sonic playbook. In the meantime, here is the field recording from the bank:

On The Sounds Of Justice

A few weeks ago I was part of a jury for a criminal trial. The trial took nine days, and I had ample opportunity to listen–not just to all the legal stuff, the arguments, the evidence, but to the sounds of voices in the courtroom and in the jury deliberation room. Court proceedings are like musical performances in that they’re special kinds of rituals with repeated actions done in deliberate ways to achieve specific ends. In the courtroom, almost all of the action is verbal, and proper legal etiquette and protocol are everything. All is articulated, all is verbalized, all is sounded and noted for the record, all is compressed and captured into heard and felt words.


We the jury, coming from our deliberating room, are about to enter the courtroom.

Court Officer: “Jury about to enter.”

We enter and take our seats in the jury box.

Judge: “Do the people and the defense agree to the presence of the jury in their proper seating?”

Attorneys: “Yes your honor.”

Judge: “Very well. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back …”

I heard this exchange many, many times over the course of the trial, and the formality of the procedure to mark our entrance always kind of entranced me.

Sitting in our chairs, we heard the lawyers make their cases. Though arguing for different sides of the same coin, each lawyer used his/her voice to convince us right off the bat of the reasonableness of their side. The defense was particularly adept at sonically shifting gears, going into pseudo-casual tones or incredulous tones or confident swagger tones–all these shifts within moments of one another. I thought it was a compelling vocal display that felt like watching a virtuoso musician tear it up and amaze me with his instrumental skills. But it also reminded me of the work of magicians in that something about this facility with tone–ultimately a musical skill, really, right?–bordered on being an aural sleight of hand. Of course, I may just be overstating the case (pardon the pun), attuned as I am to sound of things. At any rate, it was a challenging task to clearly separate what the lawyers were actually saying from how they were saying it. Again, a musical analogy: there are many ways to play the same note and make it feel differently.

We the jury listened to witnesses too. And the judge advised us beforehand to pay attention to not only what they said but to their voices and body language too. And so we watched and listened to the stoic police officer whose small voice didn’t match his hulking body, the professional ballistics expert who sounded professional and matter of fact thank you very much, the emotional family member who sounded conflicted and distressed, and a witness who sounded, well, frankly erratic and unreliable.


After both sides had made their cases, we the jury retreated to deliberate. Up to this point, I hadn’t really heard the voices of my fellow jury members, nor they my voice, and so we began to talk. What soon became apparent was almost cliché: that the loudest voices in the room aren’t necessarily saying the most sensible things. But everyone had a voice, had a say, and we deliberated for two days. At one point, some of the quieter voices made their case to one of the louder voices–a quiet Have You Considered? sound in dialogue with I’ve Already Made Up My Mind sound. To my astonishment, I’ve Already Made Up My Mind gradually began to change her tune, morphing into a Well I Hadn’t Considered That and eventually into Well, Ok, I Hear What You’re Saying. It was like a musical improvisation, with tones of voices as much as reasoning acting upon one another to steer our deliberation along a path towards eventual (and necessary) unison agreement.

One of the reasons we the jury entered the courtroom so often was to receive clarification on legal matters from the judge. I didn’t realize that everything would be read to us only–no notes allowed, nothing written down. In the tradition of a true oral tradition, we had to listen and try to remember our terms and definitions from the judge’s performance. Interestingly, the judge didn’t make use of affect in his voice as he slowly and carefully unpacked layers of meaning for us. It was clinical and up to us to apply the judge’s definitions to our deliberations.

But while we the jury worried about remembering the sounds we had just heard, a silent woman sitting in front of the judge was capturing every word spoken at the trial. She of course was the court reporter working on her small and mysterious stenography machine, translating heard words into typed shorthand. I was enchanted by her too. She was like a silent keyboardist, translating in real-time the verbal flow into a music score for posterity. And I wondered, even if stenographer’s shorthand uses just a single letter in place of a word, how could she keep up? (Stenographers, I subsequently learned, must pass stenography typing tests of 225 words per minute (!) and have the fortitude to deal with what would seem to be an element of tedium in their chosen métier.) But keep up she did and we the jury heard the constant gentle thumping of her fingers marking the passing seconds and minutes of the trial.

The performance of the trial as a whole had a rhythm too. Its tempo felt glacial (matching the frigid air-conditioned temperature of the room), change happening slowly and almost imperceptibly, noticed only at those turning points when someone new was called to the stand, say, or when a piece of verbal testimony seemed to clash with another bit heard earlier. Fortunately, there were verbal syncopations too that accented and broke up the otherwise glacial pace:

Defense: “ObJECTion your honor!”

Judge: “OverRULED!”

One could hear this as a syncopated call and response–

ba-DA-boom ba-DA-boom (call)

bada-BOOM (response)

–that happened many times, and each time opened with the same rhythm.

When matters warranted further discussion, the lawyers and the judge would huddle up by the judge’s perch, whispering quietly among themselves. It reminded me of an operatic recitative section, that moment where a character stops singing and starts talking in speech-like tones to convey a lot of information, except in this case, we the jury were not supposed to hear what was being whispered. Still, it was fun to try.

At the end of the trial we the jury read our verdict on the various charges. Or rather, our foreman read our verdict on behalf of all of us. At this point, I thought we were finally done, but the defense lawyer wanted a word with the judge. More huddling and whispered recitative up at the front of the room, then the judge turns to us and announces that we will be asked to repeat our verdict on one of the charges, only this time we will give the court our verdict individually.


It takes all of thirty seconds, but in that short time each of we the jury get our micro-moment as a musical soloist, uttering a single word of judgement for the ears of the judge, the lawyers, and the defendant. They want to hear our voices to make sure we’re all on the same page. In a way, all of our deliberations feel compressed into these little vocal solos: we are being asked to speak.

Strange Mechanisms: On Entrainment And Running To Music

“…the music, the words of the mottoes, the steps of the dance, trigger the strange mechanism.”
— Jean Rouch in Gilbert Rouget, Music and Trance (1985:181)

Yesterday I ran the NYC Half Marathon (in a time that qualified me for the NYC Marathon–yes!). One of the things I noticed along the route was the presence of live musicians and DJs playing music every few miles or so. I’ve never run with portable music players, because I’ve never bothered trying and because the sound of the music “shaking” with my body movement doesn’t sound right to me. Maybe talk radio would work, but wobbling music? No thanks.

But if the music comes from somewhere outside a set of headphones–and I have no choice whether to listen to it or not–I’m open to it. On the 13.1-mile course that took us from Central Park down through Times Square, over to the West Side Highway, down to Battery Park, and then finishing at South Street Seaport, there was music all over the place. A number of race fans had these little cowbells–the real cowbells that I assume cows wear, complete with little strikers inside–that they shook to create a mighty racket as we went by. In any other context the cowbells could get on your nerves, but on the course they sonically signified fan support and enthusiasm, as if saying: “We see you and feel your pain. Keep it up. You’re doing great.”

There were also lone musicians along the course, all of them men with acoustic guitars, most of them seeming a little “off” in one way or another. Their enthusiastic strumming didn’t carry very far in the open air, and none of them seemed to be playing anything recognizable as music anyway—they just strummed away. But like the sound from the cowbell folks, the strumming came across as welcome enthusiasm, as if to signify: “I don’t know why you’re running, but I shall play my guitar in solidarity with your effort.” As strange as it was, I appreciated the strumming.

On the open expanse of the West End Highway (highways are surprisingly calm places to be when there aren’t any cars around), there were a few bands too. Two guys looking like a 1980s-era Beastie Boys tribute band (complete with oversized gold chains and sunglasses) did some awfully bad rapping. And a few miles down the road was some kind of vintage punk rock trio. As I ran by trying to get Gatorade down my throat without choking it occurred to me how gentle punk has become in the context of the 2012 musical landscape. It still signifies punk-ness, I guess, only it doesn’t shock anymore. Running by the punk trio with Gatorade running down my shirt, I actually got a sad for a moment as I thought about it. This happens with almost every musical idiom: what was once cutting edge becomes assimilated, just another style for musicians to draw on, to be put to yet further tasks of cultural signification. (Maybe that punk trio, like the Beastie Boys-ish rappers, was being ironic? But how could I know for sure?)


But the real stars of the NYC Half Marathon sonic landscape were the DJs. Not because they were so good, but because they were so loud. At various points I heard the Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”, Biggie Smalls’ groovy “Hypnotize”, and at the race’s beginning and end, Usher’s electronic 4/4 thumper “DJ Got Us Falling In Love Again.”*

Interestingly and shockingly to me, I ran in sync to both Skynyrd and Biggie. As soon as I heard their respective songs, I instinctively locked into the tempo by adjusted my gait a little—my stride rate becoming quicker for Skynyrd and then slower for Biggie. I was happy too, because for those brief moments I was perfectly distracted from the physical task at hand, my attention pleasurably consumed by the experience of being physically in sync with songs with which I’m casually well acquainted. It was fun, through the thought (not to mention the sight!) of me smiling while running in sync to Lynyrd Skynyrd is still really disturbing.

What I was experiencing for those brief blissful moments could be called a kind of entrainment, the experience of a person syncing to an external pulse, usually one produced by others with whom one is interacting socially. You could say we do this in a mild way when we tap our feet to music, and in a more intense way when the music compels us to dance (or run) in time to it. Taken to its extreme, entrainment can set the stage for altered states of consciousness such as possession–the rhythm of an external stimulus prompting us to groove with it and ultimately enter into some kind of transcendent state.

In his book Music and Trance: a theory of the relation between music and possession (1985), French ethnomusicologist Gilbert Rouget examines the relationships among music, trance, and possession around the world through case studies ranging from the ancient Greeks to Western opera, shamanistic and ritual drumming practices in Africa and the Black Atlantic, to Islamic dhikr ceremonies in the Middle East. Rouget contends that music itself doesn’t cause trance, only helps create the conditions that might trigger it. It’s in this sense that music and its varied ritual contexts, says Rouget, can function as a perceptual launch pad that the French ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch once labeled a “strange mechanism.”

The music on the course—yes, even the Skynyrd–probably didn’t put anyone into a trance but was nevertheless my strange mechanism, energizing me because it provided a stimulus that was at once a kind of aural clock and something to focus on, giving structure and helping me make sense of a few minutes here and there as I was consumed by listening. Without music, I tend to search for sounding things to focus on anyway—things like the sound of my breathing or the regular rhythmic “swish” of my arms moving under my jacket. If you pay attention, there’s always something there to either focus on or sync to.


After the race, in the midst of the cheering crowd and the booming music that echoed off the buildings around South Street Seaport, I thought about two possibilities for designing a race day soundscape. The first would be a completely silent race. There were brief moments of this as we ran through Central Park where the crowd was sparse and all you could hear was the sound of feet hitting the pavement. We sounded like a herd of buffalo, and because all you could hear was feet, as a runner it felt like being in a herd too—the sensation of being swept along in an animal wave. But okay, I agree with you, a silent race would be a real downer of a race in a place like NYC. So, the second soundscape possibility would be to wire the course with one huge set of connected speakers playing a single piece of music for several hours. But I leave you with questions: What would this music be? Would it be highly rhythmic, like an extended DJ set? And would its tempo correspond to the supposedly ideal running pace of 180 strides per minute, with songs clocking in fast at 180 BPM or with a half-time feel of 90 BPM? Most importantly, what would be experience of running to such an extended soundtrack feel like?

Below are those three songs I heard on the course. It’s a DJ “set” that could probably never happen anywhere else!

*I actually didn’t know it was Usher singing this song until I tried singing it myself—or at least what I remembered of the hook’s melody: “Baby tonight, na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-nah”—into the Soundhound app on my iphone, and voilà: Usher!  (What can’t cellphones do again?)

On Nostalgia And The Voice Of Michael McDonald

I’m in the grocery store, staring at the fish offerings, when a subtle wave of melancholy washes over me. I’m restless and keep moving, eyeing products on the shelves, looking for a particular milk brand–but I just can’t shake this feeling. Since when is grocery shopping such an emotional experience? The milk and some odds and ends (OJ, cheese balls, bread, but no fish) secured in my basket, at last I’m standing in the checkout line when I figure out the source of my feelings: why it’s the soulful sounds of Michael McDonald!

McDonald has been in the popular music business a long time. Beginning in the 1970s he worked extensively as a background vocalist on countless studio sessions (including records by Steely Dan), and was a singer, keyboardist and songwriter with the mega-million selling Doobie Brothers from 1975-1982. From there he went on to release solo records, re-recording soul music classics and collaborating with many other musicians. He still collaborates too–most recently contributing back up vocals to the track “While You Wait for the Others” by the indie rock band Grizzly Bear. Here’s McDonald observing the arc of popular music since his heyday:

“When I was with the Doobies, the style of music was that we all went over the falls with chord progressions, trying to make things as complex and interconnected as possible. The punk movement swung towards being as primitive as possible, but now it’s back to where these guys are good musicians. I never thought that would come back around, but it has.”

McDonald has a distinctive voice that is key to his success. Essentially he’s a “blue-eyed soul” singer (in the form of a very bearded white guy). McDonald’s voice has a powerful grain to it and when he reaches for high notes he can make listeners feel as well as any singer. This voice has been circulating for many years now too. It’s kind of ubiquitous–a sound that finds its way onto radio, television, and supermarket soundtrack playlists. McDonald seems aware of his voice’s easy-listening ubiquity too, having fun with it and making cameos in various places. There is an episode of Family Guy where McDonald plays a kind of one-man Greek chorus role, urgently echo-singing every word spoken by Peter Griffin and his friends because, as Rob Harvilla of The Village Voice observed, “it all just sounds better—sweeter, smoother, more soulful—when issued from his lips.”

Urgency is the key to McDonald’s vocal sound. The song I heard while shopping at the supermarket was “On My Own”, a duet McDonald did with Patti LaBelle in 1986 that hit number one on the billboard charts. The hook and chorus of LaBelle’s song is, surprise, surprise, the phrase “on my own” that rises by just a few tones. The melody isn’t elaborate, merely traversing the interval of a minor third, but such is the urgency of McDonald (and LaBelle, of course) that he can transform these three pitches into something movingly nostalgic. Interestingly for me, though, the nostalgia is without an object: McDonald’s voice doesn’t make me long for anything specific, it just seems to embody the state of longing itself.

What a voice! Easy to parody, perhaps, but still enough to make you freeze in the checkout line and start paying attention to the source of your feelings.