The Music of Nature and Ways of Listening

by Lang Elliott ©2013

The “Music of Nature” is what one hears or feels when one is fully immersed in nature, awed by what one is observing. It is much more than sound – not only singing birds and croaking frogs, but also bursting buds, courting salamanders, butterflies in flight, wriggling creatures in a pond.

This web site focuses on the sounds of nature, but these are but a subset of the totality of the music that can be felt inside, when one is attuned to and in harmony with the natural world.

Hazrat Inayat Kahn photo“What we generally call music is the harmony of audible notes. In reality there is music in color, there is music in lines, there is music in the forest where there are trees and plants. The more widely one observes nature, the more it appeals to one’s soul. Why? Because there is music there. And to the extent to which one sees more deeply into life, one hears more and more music, the music which answers the whole universe.”

Hazrat Inayat Kahn (1882-1927) – Sufi mystic and musician

Two Approaches to Listening:

In general, there are two major approaches to listening to, appreciating, and understanding the sounds of nature. Both have their merits and their faults. In reality, there is not a clear separation of the two, as one can easily exist on the edges of both, or else learn to move freely between the them.


One popular approach is that of the scientist or naturalist, which usually involves an emphasis on the naming of things, especially the identification of species. When a sound is heard, it is mentally attached to a “cardinal,” a “bullfrog,” or some other known form. Sometimes, as soon as a sound is identified, it is time to move on, time to go find a new and different sound made by a new and different animal. Identifying each sound that is heard may be the primary goal, the “fun of it all,” and the desired endpoint of an outdoor excursion.

A biological emphasis is wed to science, to emotion-free objectivity, and one’s thoughts may focus on explaining why a sound exists, what its function is in the grand scheme of things. One may ask, “what is it about a species’ song that makes it identifiable, makes it different from other species in its environment?” Or one may embrace the scientific study of complete soundscapes in an attempt to uncover how different animals might be dividing up the “sound niche” in order minimize overlapping in frequency or time. Whatever the specific focus, questions involving “what, why, and how” are at the core of scientific thinking.

Don Kroosdma photo“Anyone who listens thoughtfully to robins can’t help but bubble with questions about why the robins are the way they are. What we do know and do not know centers around four types of questions … First, how does a robin acquire its vocabulary of calls and song? … A second set of questions focuses on the functions of all these sounds. … A third set of questions is about how and why this species of robin has come to be the way it is. … The fourth set of questions is of the “How do things work”” kind.”

Don Kroodsma – biologist and author of “The Singing Life of Birds.”

The scientific investigation of natural sounds is a fairly mature field, full of intricate details having to do with each animal’s repertoire of sounds, their meanings in the life of animal, and related considerations. But this way of experiencing and thinking about nature sounds is not the only way, and by focusing almost entirely on describing sounds scientifically and explaining their origins, one may lose touch with the feelings evoked by the sounds and the extraordinary pleasure of simply listening.


A contrasting approach involves appreciating sounds for their unique textures and qualities. This is an aesthetic matter and the focus is very much on emotional impact, on the subjective human experience of hearing particular sounds or entire soundscapes. In this realm, poetic interpretations are valid and encouraged, and may be the best and most effective way to convey one’s deepest feelings and sentiments. Sounds can be likened to foods of different colors, providing a large palette of delicious possibilities, each having a different flavor when tasted by the listener.

Appreciation is generally rooted in variability, in the fact that everything is continuously changing, that each moment is absolutely unique. The song of a bird heard one morning will be different from the song of the same bird heard that evening or the following morning, even if a scientific analysis reveals that they are all identical. In this domain, sounds are appreciated purely for their own sake, as powerful sensory or tactile experiences always occurring in a larger context. Furthermore, one need not identify the sources of sounds to experience and embrace them with all of one’s being.

In the realm of professional art, the aesthetic appreciation of sounds is in its infancy, even though groundwork has been laid by innovative thinkers such as R. Murray Schafer, who used the term “soundscape” to refer to all sounds heard at a particular place and time. The emerging field of “soundscape art” has a number of followers, especially in Europe, while the related fields of “acoustic ecology” and “soundscape ecology” provide connections between the arts and the sciences.

R. Murray Schafer photo“Today all sounds belong to a continuous field of possibilities lying within the comprehensive dominion of music … Behold the new orchestra: the sonic universe! … And the musicians: anyone and anything that sounds!”

R. Murray Schafer– Canadian composer, writer, educator

Empty The Mind:

Whatever approach one takes to listening, it is important to clear oneself of internal chatter so that you can actually hear what is going on around you. There is no way around this simple truth – if your mind is too busy, you won’t be able to hear the music, especially the subtle yet exquisite undertones of the natural soundscape.

Henry David Thoreau“Be ever so little distracted, your thoughts so little confused, your engagements so few, your attention so free, your existence so mundane, that in all places and hours you can hear the sound of crickets . . .”

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) – naturalist, writer, philosopher, and poet

Deep Listening – An Integration:

The term “Deep Listening” comes from contemporary musician and teacher Pauline Oliveros, who coined the phrase in 1991 and wrote a book by the same name in 2005. Written for composers and musicians, “Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice” presents a number of practical exercise to help students become aware of the different ways to listen. Oliveras encourages listeners to control their own movements between the different domains. Thus one need not identify with one approach or the other, but rather be firmly in the driver’s seat, charting one’s own experience. Obviously, the tenets of deep listening lend themselves very well to the study and appreciation of natural sounds.

Pauline Oliveros photo“Deep coupled with Listening or ‘Deep Listening’ for me is learning to expand the perception of sounds to include the whole space/time continuum of sounds, encountering the vastness and complexities as much as possible. Simultaneously one ought to be able to target a sound or sequence of sounds as a focus within the continuum … and return to or be within the whole.”

Pauline Oliveros – contemporary musician and teacher

Blind Listening – An Enlightening Exercise

“Blind Listening” is a term popularized by Francisco Lopez, a contemporary soundscape artist. It refers to listening without reference to the particular objects which are the sources of the sounds, and without attempting to name the sounds (a related term, “acousmatic,” describes a sound whose origin is not seen or identified). The goal in blind listening is to appreciate sounds purely for their own sake, to experience them deeply through the senses, and become attuned to their specific emotional impacts.

Anyone can do this exercise, anywhere, at any time. Stop for a moment, close your eyes, and listen. Try not to label the sounds you hear. Instead, just listen and feel. Yes, you will detect differences, but appreciate them as sound textures that are actually felt, rather than as sounds created by this or that animal or thing. Relax into the womb of the soundscape itself, into the pure sensory experience of it, without bringing to bear a strong action of mind. Surrender to the moment, listen in the here and now, experience all sounds as entirely fresh and new …

Walt Whitman photoNow I will do nothing, but listen …

I hear all sounds running together, combined,

fused or following,

Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night …

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) from “Song of Myself”


Clearly, there are many approaches to listening. It has not my intention to judge them or tell you how you should be listening (although admittedly I have tried to bring attention to the aesthetic approach to things). My main goal has been to describe the palette of possibilities and then let you choose among them or at least identify and understand your natural approach to listening. Of course, if you like the concept of “Deep Listening,” you might choose to explore in all directions, tasting each and learning to move at will between the different listening domains.

Attempting to make sense of the various approaches, I have constructed a “Deep Listening Diagram” that involves four quadrants (see below). The top represents an analytical, objective approach to listening, while the bottom represents an artistic, subjective emphasis. The right side represents a focus on specific sound objects in one’s environment (such as one bird singing or some other particular source of a sound), while the left side indicates a focus on the entire soundscape, the complete mix arriving at one’s ears. “Deep Listening” challenges the listener to navigate among all four quadrants.

Study my diagram for awhile; perhaps it will help you make sense of it all (laptop or desktop computer users can tap diagram to view enlargement):

Lang's Deep Listening DiagramLang’s Deep Listening Diagram, © 2013 Lang Elliott, All Rights Reserved.

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