I’ve noticed that a rather old piece of ‘science’ trivia is floating around the social feeds again, and I thought this might be a good Hummadruz opportunity to dispel the myths surrounding it once and for all.
The story is this (as reported breathlessly on many incredulous sites but in this case we’ll be using text from truthseekerdaily.com):
Composer Jim Wilson has recorded the sound of crickets and then slowed down the recording, revealing something so amazing. The crickets sound like they are singing the most angelic chorus in perfect harmony. Though it sounds like human voices, everything you hear in the recording is the crickets themselves.
Here’s a version of the the recording on Soundcloud:
What you’re hearing is the supposed slowed down crickets, with the original speed crickets layered over the top. It certainly does sound eerie and somewhat choral. Amazing huh? The reportage of this phenomenon is frequently accompanied by this endorsement by Tom Waits:
Tom Waits (on Jim Wilson): “Wilson, he’s always playing with time. I heard a recording recently of crickets slowed way down. It sounds like a choir, it sounds like angel music. Something sparkling, celestial with full harmony and bass parts – you wouldn’t believe it. It’s like a sweeping chorus of heaven, and it’s just slowed down, they didn’t manipulate the tape at all. So I think when Wilson slows people down, it gives you a chance to watch them moving through space. And there’s something to be said for slowing down the world.”
The hyperbole that goes with the piece almost invariably makes much of the claim that the slowed down crickets are not altered in any way apart from the direct change in pitch, but is such a claim believable?
As a professional sound designer and composer of nearly 40 years experience, I’ve had a quite a bit to do with the sounds of crickets in my time. I’ve composed several works comprised of manipulated insect and bird sounds, and I’ve spent many long hours on numerous projects building unusual atmospherics from crickets and frogs. I know cricket sounds better than most people on the planet.
And the sounds in that clip from Jim Wilson don’t sound like merely slowed-down crickets to me. But hey, you don’t have to take my word for it. Let’s do some science!
Since the clip includes the sounds of crickets running at normal speed layered over the top of the slow ones, then it follows that we could just slow the whole thing down again and get the same effect, right? The low crickets would drop right down out of audible range, but the normal speed crickets would themselves become the magical choir sounds. So let’s try it:
Hmm. Just a single low tone. No three part harmonies there, nor any beautiful modal intervals like in the Jim Wilson version. To me this is not so surprising, because I’ve used this technique a thousand times – slowing crickets down inevitably delivers you a single tonal version of the original. Sometimes you might get rhythmic pulsing, or grinding noises, but that’s about it, and it’s always at one constant pitch.
If you know anything about how crickets make their sounds, none of this will be surprising to you either. Like most insects that generate some kind of chirruping or rasping or droning sound, crickets use a mechanism called stridulation to create their loud noise. This is one of the most basic ways that a sound can be generated: friction of one body part rubbing on another creates vibration. It’s essentially a variation on the effect you get by running your fingernails up and down a washboard.
Insects can achieve stridulation in a variety of ways, but in nearly all cases, they will, through limits of their anatomy, achieve just one basic pitch, or ‘note’ – just as we’ve seen in the slowed-down example above. For them to be yielding complex melodic structures like those in the Jim Wilson track, requires an explanation that I’m sure you will find as irksome as I do: that different crickets are making different pitches and that they’re then co-operating to create choral masterworks in human melodic modes. Specifically in Western liturgical scales, at that. If that’s what’s going on here, then there are at least a half dozen major scientific discoveries waiting for an enterprising biologist to claim.
The truth is well to the contrary. When you hear insects making noise, they’re far from being co-operative. They have no interest at all in harmonising with their pals to sing the glory of God. They are in fact competing with one another. Aggressively. For sex. The loudest and most impressive gets the prize. That is all.
So, how do we explain, then, the eerie vocal harmonising in the Jim Wilson recordings? In my opinion, as a composer and performer who is very accomplished in these techniques, the answer is completely obvious. The simple, single note tonal drones of crickets lend themselves perfectly to being raw material for a popular modern instrument: the sampler. With a music sampler, a sound can be tuned across the musical scale in such a way that it can be played on any note desired. I believe that Jim Wilson has taken the monotonal cricket sounds as his basic building blocks and then played whatever melodies and harmonies he wanted with them.
There’s nothing wrong with doing any of that, of course – there have been some wonderful musical explorations of this idea – but to promote it as some unexplained natural phenomenon with supernatural overtones is at least irrational, or at worst, exploitative.* And disappointingly human-centric.
The unadorned sounds of the natural world are beautiful in their own right and there is really no need to invoke human notions of value for them to be emotionally powerful. Learn to listen to those sounds for what they are. Here is a good starting point: the wonderful natural recordings of my good friend Andrew Skeoch through Listening Earth.
*Jim Wilson sells these recordings under the title ‘God’s Chorus of Crickets’. It is important to note that he himself does not anywhere make the claim that the recordings are just slowed down. To the contrary, these are his own words: “I discovered that when I slowed down this recording to various levels, this simple familiar sound began to morph into something very mystic and complex...” The ‘various levels’ he’s talking about are chromatically tuned intervals. But he’s certainly not – as far as I’ve seen in my broad investigations – actively contradicting the numerous sites that claim the sounds have not been manipulated.