Biomusic, Music in Nature and Musica Universalis

The following post is an edited version of the third of four chapters from my honours thesis, originally written in 2013. The thesis as a whole acts as a kind of “how to” guide for composing in a few different styles, each of which somewhat removes human aspects of music composition, at the same time exploring ideas of musical universals – those aspects of music that seem to be ubiquitous across all cultures or even found to be in common across different species! This chapter details one method of musical data sonification, which I used in order to create musical representations of the orbits of planets around distant stars.


 

Chapter 3: Biomusic, Music in Nature and Musica Universalis

 

Universals are rooted in nature, but have effects in culture” (Leman, 2003, unpaginated)

Given that music can exist in numerical data, and in the sounds produced by animals, naturally occurring patterns can also hold musical information, and could have had profound impact upon the creation of early music. Natural patterns such as the rhythms of heartbeats, the natural walking pace of an individual, the night/day cycle and the changing of seasons are all examples of patterns that hold potential musical information and are all intrinsic parts of life.

Biomusic here differs from zoömusic in that it refers to sounds, pitches or rhythms created biologically, but without an intended aesthetic aspect. While the ‘voices’ of many animals used for mating calls are widely considered to have an intended aesthetic aspect, other sounds that are purely functional or biological come under the heading of biomusic.

Musica Universalis is an archaic philosophical concept relating the movements of celestial bodies – the Sun, the Moon, and the planets – to a form of music. This ‘music’ is of course not audible, but rather it can be described in the same terms as music – through mathematical and harmonic principles. The implications of this have historically been thought of as astrological rather than purely mathematical (Kepler, 1997). The harmonically described motions of celestial bodies (the rotations, orbits and resonances with other objects) are yet another example of patterns in nature which contain musical information that can be used in compositions.

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Zoömusicology: Music in the Animal Kingdom

The following post is an edited version of the second of four chapters from my honours thesis, originally written in 2013. The thesis as a whole acts as a kind of “how to” guide for composing in a few different styles, each of which somewhat removes human aspects of music composition, at the same time exploring ideas of musical universals – those aspects of music that seem to be ubiquitous across all cultures or even found to be in common across different species! This chapter is all about creating music that is based on birdcalls, and the technique could be altered for any natural (or non-natural) tuneful sounds.


 

Chapter 2: Zoömusicology: Music in the Animal Kingdom

 

“To ask questions about a basic and omnipresent human activity is to implicitly ask questions about evolution” (Levitin, 2006, p. 7)

Zoömusicology is part of a framework within biomusicology, first described by Wallin (1991), which combines the fields of evolutionary musicology (dealing with the origins of music, animal sounds as music, and ‘selection pressures’ resulting in the music we hear today), neuromusicology (the brain areas and cognitive processes involved in music making and interpretation), and comparative musicology (looking at the functions and uses of musical systems, as well as universal traits; comparative musicology was the precursor to modern ethnomusicology). In this chapter, I have looked at bird song.

No sound in nature has attached itself so affectionately to the human imagination as bird vocalisations. In tests in many countries we have asked listeners to identify the most pleasant sounds of their environment; bird-song appears repeatedly at or near the top of the list. And the history of effective bird imitations in music extends from Clément Janequin to Olivier Messiaen. (Schafer, 1977, p. 29)

Mâche notes the similarity between human music and animal music,

There is not a single musical procedure which does not have its equivalent or its prototype in one or other of the innumerable signals of animals. The simplest, in animals as in man, is naturally repetition. (Mâche, 1983/1992, p. 115)

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Music By Numbers

The following post is an edited version of the first of four chapters from my honours thesis, originally written in 2013. The thesis as a whole acts as a kind of “how to” guide for composing in a few different styles, each of which somewhat removes human aspects of music composition, at the same time exploring ideas of musical universals – those aspects of music that seem to be ubiquitous across all cultures or even found to be in common across different species! This chapter details the creation of an alternate tuning system for musical notes which is based on phi, a mathematical relation found in art and nature.


 

Chapter 1: Music By Numbers

Music is numerical by its very nature. The subdivision of time into rhythms, beats and pulses; the subdivision of frequency into myriad distinct scales and tonal systems, the mathematical principles underlying the combination of frequencies and notes in the creation of harmony. Many aspects of music are based on numbers, but is there a correlation between the numbers that define musical theory, and those that can be used to define natural phenomena? If such a correlation exists, implications could be drawn regarding the development of musical systems, as well as the ideas of musical universals.

There are several ways in which number patterns can be used to describe natural phenomenon. The self-similarity of fractals can describe the growth of plants, logarithmic curves and Fermat’s spiral can be used to describe the shapes of spirals in ram’s horns, the arrangements of leaves on plant stems, and the spiral curves in nautilus shells; chaos theory can explain the flow and shape of rivers, and the shapes of seashells can be described through the use of cellular automata. One pattern that can be found in nature as well as art to a great extent is the Fibonacci sequence.

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