Explore sounds from the book

Sounds Wild and Broken is an invitation to listen to the marvels and fractures of the world. I hope that the book inspires you to listen in your own place, finding your own sonic wonders. I offer the snippets below as a sampler of the sounds and stories from the book. Longer versions of most are available for radio and podcasts.

Rainforests: An exultation of song. Sound is especially important in lush rainforests where dense vegetation blocks many visual and aromatic signals between animals. Song cuts through the dark tangles. The incredible diversity of sounds in the forest allows animals to thrive in a crowded environment, a place full of cooperative partnerships, competition, and danger. Evolution’s creativity reaches its sonic zenith. (Recordings from the western Amazon, in Ecuador.)

Just after dawn, we hear insects and birds, including macaws flying over.

At night, dozens of species of insects build many layers sound, with a deep-voiced crested owl adding bass accompaniment.

Journeys into deep time: The Earth’s first singers. What did the first song on Earth sound like? The cricket-like Permostridulus lived 270 million years ago and is a contender for the first creature to communicate by sound. Like modern crickets, it probably rubbed its wings together, making a rasping sound from nubs on tiny wing ridges. By comparing measurements from the fossilized wings to those of modern crickets, I rebuilt this speculative sound. To my ears, this “reconstruction” sounds like a cross between a frog and a cricket, an irregular rasp that reveals the wide and uneven spacing of the nubs compared to the precisely tuned sound-making devices on the wings and bodies of living insects.

A chorus of Permostridulus might have sounded like the sound sample below. Each individual in this chorus sings at a slightly different pitch and rate, just as modern insects do. It is also possible that they did not chorus, but used the sounds to startle predators, just as many modern species do.

The ancestors and insect relatives of Permostridulus first wrapped the Earth in song. To this day, when we hear crickets chirping in a city park, forest, or meadow, we are transported to the first days of song on Earth. Here are two favorites of mine:

First, a chorus of katydids (also called bush crickets) in mid-summer in an old growth forest in Tennessee. They coordinate the pulsations of their individual calls and build a clamor louder than most city streets.

Second, a September chorus from a Tennessee meadow, the calming sound of noon on a warm day. Many of these insects sing at or above the limits of human hearing, especially for people over the age of twenty. To bring the sounds into the audible range, I’ve slowed things down. You’ll hear ten seconds at normal speed, then a segment slowed by one quarter, then a segment slowed by two thirds. This recording is binaural and so headphones will immerse you in the “shape” of the sound.

Journeys into deep time: Human music. The first musical instruments — mammoth ivory and bird wing-bone flutes — were unearthed from caves in what is now southern Germany. The sound sample below is from a mammoth ivory flute, played by flutist Anna Friederike Potengowski. The instrument was made by Wulf Hein who shows how he uses Paleolithic methods to work the ivory.

(Additional samples of sound from reconstructions of these flutes are available at the journal Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft für Urgeschichte, for example: a scale and melody played by Potengowski on a vulture-bone flute.)

The caves themselves (home to humans for at least fifty thousand years) are extraordinarily reverberant spaces and therefore well suited to flute music. The sound sample below is a compilation of hand claps, finger snaps, and lips whistling recorded inside (very reverberant) and outside (no reverberation) Hohle Fels cave. Listen for the contrast between the first “echoic” sound from in the cave and the second “dry” sound from outside. In Sounds Wild and Broken, I relate my experiences in these awe-inspiring caves and explore how the creative interplay between music and the acoustic qualities of performance spaces continues to this day in concert halls, earbuds, and electronic music.

Ancient unity under the sea (and in our ears): In the sounds of toadfish, croakers, and snapping shrimp, we hear the evolutionary connections that unite the hearing of all animals. Despite our many differences, all animals hear with the help of tiny hairs descended from the swimming appendages of plankton. The sea lives on inside our ears — we humans hear through hairs in loops of saltwater. All vertebrates – from toadfish to birds to humans – use an inner ear inherited from ancient fish forebears. We all also sing using the same beat-generating parts of the nervous system, parts that also help to coordinate movements like swimming or walking. Hearing, song, and dance are therefore deeply connected. (These recordings are from a hydrophone off St Catherines Island, Georgia. The bleats are toadfish and the taps are croakers, both using swim bladders to make sound; the crackling sound like bacon fat in a frying pan comes from the claws of hundreds of snapping shrimp.)

Now, add engines to this ancient ocean soundscape. Hear how a small outboard engine drowns other sounds. This is a small example of Earth’s most severe sonic crisis, noise pollution in the seas. If there is an acoustic hell, it is in today’s oceans, places now filled with far-carrying engine noise, the explosions of seismic oil exploration, and sonar.

Ecology shapes sound: The roar of wind in evergreens shapes the voices of mountain-dwelling animals. The high-pitched songs of red crossbill and Rocky Mountain elk soar above the low-frequency roar of the wind in mountain evergreens (in this case, ponderosa pines, one of the loudest trees in the mountains). Each recording is paired: first the animal sound with the wind filtered out, then the sound with the noise of the wind. The physical constraints imposed by the environment shape animal sounds. The songs of birds contain within them the acoustic qualities of vegetation and the voices of the wind. Mammal calls reveal how predators and prey hear one another in the varied terrains of forests and plains. Water’s many moods are expressed in the forms of whale and fish songs. The inner structure of plant material is manifest in the vibratory signals of insects. Even the words on this page, voiced silently as you read, have living within them signatures of the air and vegetation in which human language blossomed.

Ecology shapes sound: Human voices. The sounds of human languages emerge partly from our ecology and diet. The soft diet of agrarians causes a child-like overbite to persist into adulthood. Cultures based on agriculture therefore use many words that include sounds with upper teeth pressed to lower lips. English is a language of porridge and mash: form, vivid, fulvous, favorite.

Ecology shapes sound: Musical instruments. Human music takes us deep into the creativity of our own species, but also links us in intimate ways to the ecology of the world. In the sound of a nineteenth-century violin, we hear the qualities of maple, spruce, and pernambuco woods, all grown in forests that pre-date the age of oil and gasoline. Every orchestra and band comprises dozens of plant species, animal body parts, and metal ores, bringing the ecology and materiality of the living Earth to our senses.

Original composition by Katherine Lehman. From the album “13 Ways to Smell a Tree”, this piece is titled “Olive”. Copyright, Katherine Lehman, 2021. JB Vuillaume violin of spruce and maple, Vigneron bow of pernambuco.

Learning and culture. Only a few species of birds and mammals learn their songs. Such learning is a creative force, allowing individuals and communities to find and evolve their sonic identities. Over time, learning can lead to culture. These white-crowned sparrows are one example. Each sparrow sings its own unique song. The songs also vary geographically. Here, we hear four Colorado individuals and one from California. Reading the words on this page is another example: reading activates the “listening” parts of the brain, and so written culture is an extension of aural learning and innovation.  

City life: Birds mold their songs to the city. Some birds have adapted their songs to city life. Before the nineteenth century, the Eurasian blackbird was a bird of forests. Now, they are common in urban areas, the result of successful colonization and adaptation. City birds sing louder and higher than their countryside cousins. They also breed earlier, migrate less frequently, and have higher stress levels. The sound sample below is of a blackbird singing amid the traffic and hubbub of Paris, France. In the book, blackbirds serve not only as a window into the sonic adaptability of some urban birds, but also into the role of sound in human memory. One of my earliest aural memories is of the sound of blackbird songs reverberating in the courtyards of Parisian apartment buildings. We all have these markers of home – sounds that act as aural compasses, held in memory for decades.

City life: Noise as a burden but also the sound of home. In the city, we encounter more loud and unexpected sounds in one day than most of our ancestors did in a lifetime. This noise exacts a toll on our physical and mental health. Because of racist and classist city planning in the past, the burden of noise is unjustly borne, with lower income and minority people and neighborhoods experiencing far more unwanted and harmful sound. Some city sounds, though, are the sounds of home, sonic markers of belonging. Conflicts about what counts as unwanted “noise” are often part of arguments about gentrification. Newcomers often want to shut down local sounds, whereas longtime residents love some aspects of the urban soundscape. How we define and manage “noise” is therefore at the heart of environmental and social justice.

Concrete saws and jackhammers in Manhattan, NY:

Piledrivers in Queens, NY, holding an impressively steady beat as they pound the foundations for LaGuardia airport’s recent renovation:

The city is full of interesting confluences of sound. Here, the sound of a trumpet-playing busker merges with subway announcements, is swallowed by the train, then reemerges.

The subway trains at Union Square station, Manhattan, reached sound pressure levels of 95 decibels as I recorded. That’s plenty loud enough to permanently damage the delicate hair cells of your inner ears.

City sounds merge into a continuous low growl. Here, the rumble is audible even among the birds and squirrels recorded in a sheltered spot in Central Park, Manhattan.

What would it mean to honor and protect sound? Could we give sensory experience the same attention and care that we give to special places and objects? The 100 Soundscapes of Japan project both honors significant soundscapes and encourages deeper listening. Here, the Peace Bell in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, Japan merges with crows, people talking, and the rumble of the city, one of the one hundred special sounds noted by the program. What are the special sounds of your home and community?

Unless otherwise noted in sound caption, all sounds here copyright David George Haskell, 2022. All are available for use by permission in podcasts and radio shows.