ASI intern Aubrey Milatz attended the Living With Animals conference in Richmond, Kentucky where she was invited to give a presentation entitled “Representations of Nonhuman Animals in Music.” Below is a summary of her presentation. Enjoy!
Because music is defined primarily in Western culture as art, it can be challenging to study it from a scientific perspective. The word “art” has its roots in the word “artificial,” which carries the implication that it is not “natural.” We tend to consider everything not man-made to be natural — including nonhuman animals — and therefore the logic could be drawn that since music is art, and art is artificial, and artificial is the opposite of natural, other animals can never have music. This is faulty, anthropocentric reasoning, of course, but it presents an opportunity to examine how humans represent other animals musically within a culture that has a history of keeping them at a distance in our musical literature, as well as an opportunity to consider what we are potentially missing by doing so.
In Western art music, nonhuman animals tend to be represented through their sounds, their size, their movements, and our own emotional response to them. The musical themes of each of the nonhuman animal characters (bird, duck, cat, and wolf) in
Peter and the Wolf (Prokofiev, 1936) exemplify these trends. The bird is portrayed by a fast, fluttering motif played by the flute, which is reflective of both the bird’s song and her flight. The duck is depicted by an oboe, whose timbre is often compared to the quack of a duck — especially when the instrument is played by new musicians! A staccato theme played in a clarinet’s lower register portrays the cat’s nonchalant movement. Finally, the wolf, who is not only the antagonist of the story but also carries many negative cultural connotations, is represented by a trio of French horns, whose rich timbre and theme in a minor key paint a picture of a complex, dangerous creature. Additionally, each character is represented by an instrument whose pitch is relative to their size. We seem to naturally create associations between large objects and lower-pitched sounds (as well as small objects and high-pitched sounds), and in fact some findings suggest that humans view size as a dimension of auditory perception. Therefore, by representing the smaller animals with higher-pitched instruments and employing lower-pitched instruments to represent larger animals, this information is easily conveyed to listeners.
The wolf’s representation in
Peter and the Wolf is the most interesting of the nonhuman animals because Prokofiev drew upon our biological reactions to sound to impress upon us the culturally categorized “evil” character of the wolf. Not only did Prokofiev begin each phrase of the wolf’s theme with a “marcato” articulation, mimicking the sharp, sudden onsets of other species’ alarm calls as well as our own tendency to begin negative words with a rapidly pronounced phoneme (Adelman, Estes, & Cossu, 2018), he also composed the theme in a minor key. Minor chords, as well as diminished and augmented, are less consonant than major chords, and often evoke a negative emotional reaction in listeners. A large part of what makes certain note combinations more consonant or dissonant is the interval ratio between the notes. For example, the notes C and G create an interval called a perfect fifth, which has an interval ratio of 2:3. This means that after every second C wavelength and every third G wavelength, the two wavelengths synchronize. A perfect fifth is a very consonant interval. On the other hand, the notes C and F# create an interval called an augmented fourth, which is an extremely dissonant interval. The interval ratio for an augmented fourth is 32:45. The smaller an interval ratio between two notes, the more stable and consonant-sounding the notes are. The larger the ratio, the more negatively we perceive the sound.
This seems to hold true for some other species as well. Doolittle, Gingras, Endres, and Fitch (2014) observed that hermit thrushes preferred to sing songs that had overtone-related pitches in small-integer ratio intervals. This is a significant finding because human music, and especially Western music, is largely based on small-integer ratio intervals. It should be noted that the researchers also transposed the recordings of the birds’ songs into a more comfortable hearing range for humans, as well as played them at one-sixth of the original speed in order to more effectively analyze them, which begs the question: how much “music” are we missing simply because of our own perceptual limitations? Yet even when we find evidence of human-like musicality in other animals, we are hesitant to acknowledge it, claiming that intentionality (for example, are other animals vocalizing to create art or to communicate?) is crucial in discriminating music from sound.
However, the concept of “music” is not universally shared, even across human cultures. For example, instead of an equivalent word for music as we know it, the Mi’kmaq people of Newfoundland have an expression, “welta’q” which means “it sounds good,” referring to the “quality and experience of a sound, rather than a particular way of producing it” (Keller, 2016). Representation of nonhuman animals in music is a culturally, linguistically, and sonically complex subject. To truly include nonhuman animals in what we consider to be music may not ever be possible given that music is considered to be an art form, is subjective, and its definition is humanly contrived. Instead, perhaps another term can eventually be adapted, one that encompasses “good” sounds made by anyone, human or otherwise, wherein we learn to appreciate the experience of a sound instead of becoming hung up on the intentionality or theories behind it.
Aubrey holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology with a minor in music from the University of Idaho and is graduating with a Master of Science in Anthrozoology from Canisius College this May. She is currently an editorial intern for ASI’s academic journal, Society & Animals.