A wall of sound

My favorite use of podcasts is to keep me company in the kitchen while I’m puttering around, which means I’m often not listening with 100% of my brain. (“Let’s see, what else shall I put in this stir fry?”) But a podcast from Radiolab caught my attention this week and before long, I stopped everything I was doing to listen closely.

The Radiolab hosts were speaking with David Rothenberg, a man who loves music — animal music. Here’s what the podcast page says:

While most of us hear a wall of white noise, squeaks, and squawks….David Rothenberg hears a symphony. He’s trained his ear to listen for the music of animals, and he’s always looking for chances to join in, with everything from lonely birds to giant whales to swarming cicadas.

First we hear Rothenberg playing a duet on his clarinet with a white-crested laughing thrush in a walk-through aviary. Then he duets with a male humpback whale. In both instances, the feathered and flippered duet partners can clearly be heard altering their song in an immediate, real-time response to the clarinet.

Then Rothenberg begins explaining what we’re really hearing in a cicada buzz. That constant, unvarying buzz is anything but; it’s actually several distinct calls. But when those individual calls are multiplied by a crowd, they’re subsumed into the single-note buzz that we humans think is the call of a cicada. We’re wrong.

It’s fascinating stuff, and I am never again going to be able to read the word “pharaoh” without hearing a male Magicicada septendecim cicada. Pharrrr-OH.

Because I use the free version of WordPress, I’m not allowed to embed the podcast — that costs extra! — but you can listen to it directly from Radiolab’s page. If you want to skip the thrush and humpback, and go directly to the cicadas, that segment begins at 8:30 minutes.

Note: I also give this podcast my award for Best Use of Disco Music in Serious Biology. Who wouldn’t love Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” in association with boogying cicadas?

Cicada calls

(Graphic from a paper on cicada mating calls by John Cooley and David Marshall at the University of Connecticut. Radiolab added the cicadas.)


About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
This entry was posted in biology, science. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A wall of sound

  1. Lisa Shaw says:

    Cicada calls, improvisational jazz, it’s all pretty much just noise to the uninitiated. All music appreciation begins with learning how to listen. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Can you find a Radiolab episode that explains jazz?

  2. Andre West says:

    After listening to this podcast, I couldn’t help but find a similarity between the cicada’s three calls and the three types of shofar blasts heard in a temple near you several times a year.

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