Naturally Musical

Ecomusicology is a diverse academic field bridging sound and science

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Nature may have a music all its own, as many poets and ecologists have observed. But the growing field of ecomusicology is not simply the study of the sounds of waterfalls and honking geese. It’s an expansive discipline that explores how music relates to the environment in many different ways, writes Mark Pedelty in the environmental magazine Momentum (Spring 2011):

“Some ecomusicologists explore how music motivates and persuades consumers, activists, or political actors. Others are concerned about the direct impacts of sound, such as the effects of loud music and urban noise on bird communication and reproduction. Musical neuroscientists and anthropologists have begun thinking about the social and evolutionary roles of music in relation to human ecologies, past and present.”

Ecomusicologists sometimes draw direct links between the concert hall and the natural world. Pedelty reports on the work of Aaron Allen at the University of North Carolina, who has researched the manufacture of violins from hardwoods in disappearing forests: “Allen connects the overharvesting of hardwoods on a local level to globalized music practices, using the violin as both metaphor and material link for understanding music’s complex relationship to global ecologies. . . . As he has shown, the fate of Pernambuco forests in Brazil is determined in part by the musical tones demanded by aficionados, virtuosos, and luthiers alike.”

By and large, ecomusicology is not about affixing blame or politicizing the arts. But Pedelty makes the case that music and the environment are natural bedfellows: “Ultimately the environmental crisis is a cultural problem—and music is one of the most powerful forms of cultural mediation, expression, and communication, an emotional force with serious environmental outcomes.”

cover-167-thumbHave something to say? Send a letter to editor@utne.com. This article first appeared in the September-October 2011 issue of Utne Reader.