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May 18, 2014

The Music of Nature


About the author: James Monroe Trotter (1842-1892) was born into slavery in Mississippi. His mother escaped with Trotter and his brother via the Underground Railroad, and they settled in Cincinnati, where Trotter became a teacher. He moved to Boston and fought in the Civil War, becoming the first African-American to achieve the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Union Army. He later became the first African-American to be employed by the U.S. Post Office, but resigned in protest when discrimination prevented his promotion. His Music and Some Highly Musical People, written in 1878, is said to be the first comprehensive study of music written in the United States. In 1887, President Cleveland appointed Trotter to the office of Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia, succeeding the great African-American statesman Frederick Douglass in what was then the highest government position to be attained by an African-American. “The Music of Nature,” excerpted below, is chapter two of part one of Music and Some Highly Musical People. (Source: Wikipedia.)




“The lark sings loud, and the throstle’s song

Is heard from the depths of the hawthorn dale;

And the rush of the streamlet the vales among

Doth blend with the sighs of the whispering gale.”

Matin and Evening Songs.


To the inventive genius of man must, of course, be attributed the present developments, and the beautiful, diversified forms, existing in musical art. But, before man was, the great Author of harmony had created what may be called the music of Nature.

Afterwards, the human ear, penetrated by sounds of melody issuing from wind, wave, or bird, the rapt mind in strange and pleasing wonder contemplating the new and charming harmonies,—then it was that man received his first impressions, and took his first lessons in delightful symphony.

Take from man all creative and performing power in music, leaving him only the ear to catch and the mind to comprehend the sounds, and there would still be left to him God’s own music,—the music of Nature, which, springing as it did from eternity, shall last throughout eternity.

Passing what must appear to human comprehension as vague (an attempt at the contemplation of which would be without profit in this connection), and what has been called the “music of the spheres,”[3] we may proceed to briefly touch upon those forms of natural music which are ever within our hearing, and which constantly afford us pleasure.

First let us go forth into the summer woods. The eye takes in the charming prospect,—the trees dressed in beautiful green; the “grassy carpet,” parted ever and anon by a gliding, gurgling brooklet; the wild flower peeping up near the feet; a landscape of even surface, or at times pleasingly undulated. The atmosphere is freighted with a delightful fragrance; and from rustling bough, from warbling bird, from rippling brook, and from the joyous hum of insects almost innumerable,

“The air is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs,

That give delight, and hurt not.”

All these, the beauties of animate and inanimate Nature, pleasantly affect the senses. But the chief influence there—the crowning glory of the groves—is the songs, the charming music of the birds, as they warble from tree to tree, untrammelled by the forms of art, their sweetest melodies. How often do their lightsome, inspiriting carollings ring out upon the morning air, persuasively calling us from our couches to listen in delight to Nature’s minstrelsy! “After man,” says a writer, “the birds occupy the highest rank in Nature’s concerts. They make the woods, the gardens, and the fields resound with their merry warbles. Their warbled ‘shake’ has never been equalled by human gifts of voice, nor by art.”

Birding by Ear: Northern Cardinal Song– Macaulay Library Curator, Greg Budney, talks about the brilliant song of the Northern Cardinal. ‘After man,’ says a writer, ‘the birds occupy the highest rank in Nature’s concerts. They make the woods, the gardens, and the fields resound with their merry warbles. Their warbled ‘shake’ has never been equalled by human gifts of voice, nor by art.’

Indeed, it has been found that many of the songs of birds are sung in certain of the keys; while a learned musical writer has produced a book in which are printed many samples of the music often sung by birds. In very recent times it is stated, too, that birds have been taught to sing some of the popular tunes of the day; this being accomplished by placing a bird in a room for a while, allowing it to hear no other bird, and only the tune to be learned. Professor Brown of Aiken, S.C., has mocking-birds which he has taught to sing such songs as “The Star-spangled Banner” and “Yankee Doodle.” These birds were to be taken to the Centennial Exhibition, to there exhibit their marvellous skill.

A writer in “The Monthly Reader” thus speaks of that pretty singer the bullfinch:—

“I heard a lady cry out to a little bird in a cage, ‘Come, Bully, Bully, sweet little Bully Bullfinch, please give us just one more tune.’

“And then, to my surprise, the little bird whistled the tune of ‘Yankee Doodle’ as well as I could have done it myself.

“The lady then told me about the bird. It was a bullfinch. She had bought it in the little town of Fulda, in Germany, where there are schools for teaching these birds to sing.

“When a bullfinch has learned to sing two or three tunes, he is worth from forty to sixty dollars; for he will bring that price in London or Boston or New York.

“To teach them, the birds are put in classes of about six each, and kept for a time in a dark room. Here, when their food is given them, they are made to hear music. And so, when they have had their food, or when they want more food, they will sing, and try to sing a tune like that they have just heard; for perhaps they think it has something to do with what they eat.”

But as, in presenting these examples of the musical teachableness of the “feathered songsters,” I am entering the domain of music as an art, I will not further digress. Certain it is, too, that these delightful musicians of Nature do not require the aid of the skill of man; nor is it desirable, for the sake of musical effect at least, that their own wild, free, and glad-hearted warblings should be changed. They are better as they are, affording as they do a pleasing contrast, and adding freshness and variety to the many other forms of music. Some one, dwelling upon the charming beauty of bird-music, has expressed in words of very excusable rapture the following unique wish:—

“Oh! had I but the power

To set the proper words

To all your glorious melodies,

My sweet-voiced birds,

When words and dainty music

Would each to each belong,

Together we might give the world

A perfect song.”

But I need not refer at greater length to these sweet harmonists of Nature, since scarce an ear is so dull, and few hearts are so cold, as not to be charmed and cheered by their unceasing, joyous melodies.

Calls of the Loons: in addition to the Common Loon, North America has four other species of loons, all of which make worthy attempts at replicating the thrilling wail of the Common Loon but with less consistent results, as is evident in this short audio slideshow of the various calls. Illustrated with beautiful photographs by Gerrit Vyn and audio recordings by Michael J. Anderson, Peter Paul Kellog and Gerrit Vyn.

It might well be thought that flowers, those “fairy ministers of grace,” with their delicately tinted, variegated, perfect hues, that emit, in their sweet, delicious perfumes, what may be called the “breath of heaven,” possess in these delightful qualities full enough to instruct and charm mankind. But there is a flower, it seems, that, inviting the aid of the evening zephyr, adds sweet music to its other fascinating beauties. Let the poet Twombly sing of the music-giving—



Have ye ever heard in the twilight dim

A low, soft strain

That ye fancied a distant vesper-hymn,

Borne o’er the plain

By the zephyrs that rise on perfumed wing,

When the sun’s last glances are glimmering?

Have ye heard that music, with cadence sweet

And merry peal,

Ring out like the echoes of fairy feet

O’er flowers that steal?

The source of that whispering strain I’ll tell;

For I have listened oft

To the music faint of the blue harebell

In the gloaming soft:

‘Tis the gay fairy-folk the peal who ring,

At even-time, for their banqueting.

And gayly the trembling bells peal out

With gentle tongue;

While elves and fairies career about

‘Mid dance and song.

It would be tedious to enumerate and dwell upon all the very numerous music-making agencies of the natural world; and I shall therefore allude only to a few of those not already mentioned.

The waterfalls at Shawnee Falls along with the calls of bluebirds, orioles, wood ducks, mallards and more: ‘Many have heard the sounds of waterfalls, and know that from them issues a kind of majestic music, which, to be appreciated, must be heard.’

Many have heard the sounds of waterfalls, and know that from them issues a kind of majestic music, which, to be appreciated, must be heard. Musicians of finely cultivated ears have studied the tones of waterfalls; and two of them, Messrs. A. and E. Heim, say that a mass of falling water gives

“The chord of C sharp, and also the non-accordant F. When C and D sound louder than the middle note, F is heard very fully, as17 a deep, dull, humming, far-resounding tone, with a strength proportionate to the mass of the falling water. It easily penetrates to a distance at which the other notes are inaudible. The notes C, E, G, F, belong to all rushing water, and in great falls are sometimes in different octaves. Small falls give the same notes one or two octaves higher. In the stronger falls, F is heard the most easily; in the weak ones, C. At the first attempt, C is most readily detected. Persons with musical cultivation, on attempting to sing near rapidly-moving water, naturally use the key of C sharp, or of F sharp if near a great fall.”

Somewhat similar to waterfalls in the character of the tunes they produce (being distinguished, however, generally, by a greater softness and more gentle flow) are the waves, that, handsome in form, roll majestically shoreward, greeting the ear with a strange, dirge-like, yet, as it seems to the writer, pleasing harmony.

‘The gray, unresting sea/Adown the bright and belting shore/Breaking in untold melody/Makes music evermore.’

Here is given a duet between the waves and zephyrs:—

“We sit beneath the dreaming moon,

And gaze upon the sea:

Our hearts with Nature are in tune;

List to her minstrelsy.

The waves chant low and soft their song,

And kiss the rocks in glee;

While zephyrs their sweet lay prolong,—

Their love-song to the sea.”

There is a pretty, delicate music made by the rippling, gurgling brooklet, as its transparent waters glide over its pebbly bottom. And there’s the musical sea-shell. Place it to the ear, and you shall catch, as if in the far distance, the reverberating roll of the billowy ocean as it sings a mighty song. To this the poet Wordsworth very gracefully refers in the following lines:—

“I have seen

A curious child, who dwelt upon a tract

Of inland ground, applying to his ear

The convolutions of a smooth-lipped shell:

To which, in silence hushed, his very soul

Listened intensely, and his countenance soon

Brightened with joy; for from within were heard

Murmurings whereby the monitor expressed

Mysterious union with its native sea.”

And an anonymous writer (it does not seem that he had good cause for hiding his name) thus discourses on the music of the sea:—

“The gray, unresting sea,

Adown the bright and belting shore

Breaking in untold melody,

Makes music evermore.

Centuries of vanished time,

Since this glad earth’s primeval morn,

Have heard the grand, unpausing chime,

Momently new born.

Like as in cloistered piles

Rich bursts of massive sounds upswell,

Ringing along dim-lighted aisles

With spirit-trancing spell;

So on the surf-white strand

Chants of deep peal the sea-waves raise,

Like voices from a viewless land

Hymning a hymn of praise.

By times, in thunder-notes,

The booming billows shoreward surge;

By times a silver laugh it floats;

By times a low, soft dirge.19

Souls more ennobled grow

Listing the worldly anthem rise;

Discords are drowned in the great flow

Of Nature’s harmonies.

Men change and ‘cease to be,’

And empires rise and grow and fall;

But the weird music of the sea

Lives, and outlives them all.

The mystic song shall last

Till time itself no more shall be;

Till seas and shores have passed,

Lost in eternity.”

But the wind is one of Nature’s chief musicians. Sometimes singing his own songs, or lending his aid in awaking to musical life the leaves and boughs of the trees; whistling melodies among the reeds; entering the recesses of a hollow column, and causing to issue from thence a pleasing, flute-like sound; blowing his quiet, soothing lays in zephyrs; or rushing around our dwellings, singing his tuneful yet minor refrain,—in these, and in even other ways, does this mighty element of the Creator contribute to the production of melody in the world of nature. A writer in “The Youth’s Companion” speaks very entertainingly of “voices in trees.” He says,—

“Trees, when played upon by the wind, yield forth a variety of tones. Mrs. Hemans once asked Sir Walter Scott if he had noticed that every tree gives out its peculiar sound. ‘Yes,’ said he, ‘I have; and I think something might be done by the union of poetry and music to imitate those voices, giving a different measure to the oak, the pine, the willow, &c.’ The same journal from which we take this anecdote mentions, that in Henry Taylor’s drama, ‘Edwin the Fair,’ there are some pleasing lines,20 where the wind is feigned to feel the want of a voice, and to woo the trees to give him one.

“He applied to several: but the wanderer rested with the pine, because her voice was constant, soft, and lowly deep; and he welcomed in her a wild memorial of the ocean-cave, his birthplace. There is a fine description of a storm in ‘Coningsby,’ where a sylvan language is made to swell the diapason of the tempest. ‘The wind howled, the branches of the forest stirred, and sent forth sounds like an incantation. Soon might be distinguished the various voices of the mighty trees, as they expressed their terror or their agony. The oak roared, the beech shrieked, the elm sent forth its long, deep groan; while ever and anon, amid a momentary pause, the passion of the ash was heard in moans of thrilling anguish.'”

‘The wind is one of Nature’s chief musicians…’

I shall close this chapter on the music of Nature by appending a beautiful reference to what has been called “the music of the spheres.” The lines form, as well, an elegant and elevated description of and tribute to music in general. I regret that the author’s name cannot be given.

“The Father spake: in grand reverberations

Through space rolled on the mighty music-tide;

While to its low, majestic modulations

The clouds of chaos slowly swept aside.

The Father spake: a dream, that had been lying

Hushed from eternity in silence there,

Heard the pure melody, and, low replying,

Grew to that music in the wondering air,—

Grew to that music, slowly, grandly waking,

Till, bathed in beauty, it became a world;

Led by his voice, its spheric pathway taking,

While glorious clouds their wings around it furled.21

Not yet has ceased that sound, his love revealing;

Though, in response, a universe moves by:

Throughout eternity its echo pealing,

World after world awakes in glad reply.

And wheresoever in his rich creation

Sweet music breathes,—in wave, in bird, or soul,—

‘Tis but the faint and far reverberation

Of that great tune to which the planets roll.”


(3) Reference is supposed to be made to this in the Book of Job, in these words: “When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.”


James Monroe Trotter’s Music and Some Highly Musical People is available at Project Gutenberg


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