The Wrack

The Wrack is the Wells Reserve blog, our collective logbook on the web.

Music in the Key of Maine

Posted by | August 4, 2013


The following was originally published in the Biddeford-Saco Journal Tribune Sunday edition, 8/4/13:


Music is in the ear of the beholder. Whether finch or frog, cricket or quartet, it’s all part of nature’s symphony.

Working at the Wells Reserve at Laudholm, I listen to recorded music in my farmhouse office most hours of the day. Because it’s such a natural fit here, I’m bringing more live music to our barn this summer too. String quartets sound particularly fine in a hundred-year-old wooden barn. An acoustical engineer recently told me: “Wood slats like your barn’s walls have ideal absorptive, reflective, and diffusive characteristics for live instrumentation.” Sounds good to me.

Barns aside, I’m constantly discovering new artists in our fields and marshes too.

Naturally, there’s bird song. The finches, mockingbirds, and veeries offer free concerts here every day. In recent years, scientists at other institutions have analyzed several species’ songs, determining quantitatively that the songs “are not technically music.” Killjoys. (There is, however, Mexico’s white-breasted wood wren that chirps a strikingly familiar version of Beethoven’s Fifth. Don’t tell the scientists.) Didn’t WGBH used to play birdsong at the top of the Morning pro musica broadcast? Robert J. Lurtsema knew what he was doing.

Birds aren’t our only musicians here. The male American bullfrogs use their entire bodies, not just their vocal sac, to create their unmistakable bass “ga-rump.” Low-frequency tones ring out from their lungs and torsos, but up to 90 percent of their croaks’ volume actually comes from vibrating their eardrums. Try singing like that sometime; you won’t succeed, but you’ll look pretty hilarious in the attempt.

Field crickets may lack in melody, but they make up for it in meteorology. To get a rough estimate of the outside temperature, I count the number of chirps from a single cricket in 15 seconds and then add 37. Getting close enough to hear these one-note violinists, but not frighten them into silence, takes patience and sneakiness. String musicians are temperamental throughout the natural world, it seems.

For the most part, animals raise their voices to communicate, to woo or to warn. To hear structure and emotion in whale and dolphin songs may be to impart too much of ourselves into what is likely just animal speech. Does that unweave the rainbow too much? Isn’t it a richer experience to hear music everywhere?

I’ve spent enough time in the environmental world to decide there’s no sharp break between the animal and the human, the natural and the built. The waves on Laudholm Beach roar and hiss like a timpani section; the Little River trickles and the Branch Brook burbles. Birds, bugs, and bullfrogs are my evening serenaders. A few times a day, the Doppler-shifting Downeaster raises its call. Most nights in South Portland, I fall asleep to the sound of crickets *and* Portland Headlight’s 15-second foghorn (it’s a D, I think).

Even if you don’t pay to hear it in concert somewhere this summer, music is all around. Keep listening.


Nik Charov is president of Laudholm Trust, the nonprofit partner of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells, Maine. His Sunday Journal Tribune column, “Between Two Worlds,” ventures forth from the intersection of art and science, past and future, major and minor. More at

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