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A Beautiful World: Listening to nature's symphony

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A man with headphones listens to nature.
Bioacoustician Bernie Krause at work.
Courtesy of Bernie Krause

Bernie Krause is a musician, a performer and a bioacoustician — someone who studies the use of sound in nature. He first began recording animals and wild areas in 1968. Back then he had no idea that every living organism created its own unique sound signature, even ants, insect larvae, sea anemones and viruses.

“Most of what we understand about the natural world is from our visual sense,” he said. “Each place has its own voice. Like your voice, or my voice. You can’t mistake the Amazon rainforest from the Yukon delta in Alaska. It’s unmistakable. It describes and reinforces that idea that each animal has its own voice and its own place in the great animal orchestra.”

Krause first became aware of the importance of sound in nature in 1971, when he worked on an album called “All Good Men.” He wanted to incorporate Native American music into the album, and sought out members of the Nez Perce Tribe to record their stories and music.

"When I went up to the reservation to record their stories and songs, I met a man named Angus who was an elder in the tribe,” he said. “When I started to talk to him about music, Angus said to me, ‘Well, you white boys know nothing about music.’ I thought, what do you mean? I'm a composer, I'm a performer, I know everything I need to know about music. I asked him to show me what he meant."

Angus took Krause to Lake Wallowa in northeast Oregon and sat him down where a nearby stream emptied into the lake.

“I was sitting there,” Krause recounted, “and he said, ‘Wait, just be patient.’ Sure enough, in a few minutes the wind came down the valley where the stream was, and all of a sudden I heard the sound of this great pipe organ. I couldn't for the life of me figure out where it came from.”

The sound came from the reeds that grew along the stream. Each was broken off at a different length and produced the effect of a reed flute. When the wind blew over the edge of the reeds it created beautiful music. Angus pointed at the reeds and said, “This is how we got our music, and this is how you got yours.”

After that, Krause collected sound from every living thing he could find. To date, he has recorded more than 15,000 species captured on more than 5,000 hours of tape. He recorded animals individually and together, and noted the way they communicated with each other and with their ecosystem at large. He noted that animals changed their frequencies and pitch in order to be heard, rising above or below other species, all together creating the effect of an animal orchestra.

Krause called these site-specific recordings “soundscapes,” which all had three parts. First, there was the “geophony,” the sound created by nonbiological entities like wind, waves and movement of the earth. Then there was the “biophony,” or the sound generated by living organisms. Lastly, there was the “anthropophony,” or human-made sounds, like traffic, airplanes and boat motors. By recording and analyzing the data of all the soundscape elements, Krause discovered he could more accurately understand the health of an environment.

“When I was in Africa in 1983,” he said, “and listening late one evening to the ambient soundscape, there were insects and birds and mammals and frogs all vocalizing at the same time. It sounded like these animals were finding their own bandwidth, niches, to vocalize. When I got home I began to analyze it and it was clear this looked like a musical score.”

A book cover with animals on it.
The cover of Bernie Krause's book "The Great Animal Orchestra."
Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company

In 1968, Krause founded Wild Sanctuary, an organization dedicated to the recording and archiving of natural soundscapes. He also took his findings from the natural world and wrote a book called "The Great Animal Orchestra," which explores our relationship with animals and how they’ve inspired our lives.

Krause’s book inspired composer Richard Blackford to create a symphony called “The Great Animal Orchestra,” which premiered at the Cheltenham Music Festival in 2014 and was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The score is a combination of Krause's found-sound and Blackford’s composition, the notes artfully arranged like blackbirds flying across sheet music.

Over the years Krause’s work has inspired musical compositions, art installations and scientific studies. His recordings continue to illuminate the intricacies of the animal kingdom, and show how animals have inspired our world throughout the ages — teaching us, among other things, the art of dance, music and communication. Most importantly, Krause’s animal orchestras show us how deep listening can reveal a healthier, more vibrant world for all creatures, including humans.

“While a picture may be worth a thousand words,” Krause said in his 2017 TED talk, “a soundscape is worth a thousand pictures. Our ears tell us that the whisper of every leaf and creature speaks to the natural sources of our lives, which indeed may hold the secret of love for all things, especially our own humanity.”