Any day now, cicadas in the northeastern United States will again emerge from their 17-year cycle. The deafening sound upon their arrival is familiar to many people –- and often a nostalgic reminder of sweltering summer evenings. Musician and professor David Rothenberg can’t wait for the cicadas. He has spent the last few years studying and playing duets with cicadas, crickets and beetles. In his other books he explored why birds sing and whale songs. Now he examines the rhythm and noise of insects and their influence on human music. His new book and CD are called “Bug Music.”


  • David Rothenberg Philosopher, musician and author of "Why Birds Sing,""Sudden Music," "Hands End," and "Always the Mountains."

Listen To Bug Music

Magicicada Unexpected Road
Father and son live on clarinet and iPad confront the 17 year cicadas in Virginia, spring 2012.

Riddim Bugz
Here, for once, the beats of bugs are quantized into regularity. Featuring the red-headed meadow katydid, mole cricket, confused ground cricket, and the common virtuoso katydid, over the regular beat of Robinson’s cicada.

Read An Excerpt

Excerpt from “Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise” by David Rothenberg. Copyright 2013 by David Rothenberg. Reprinted here by permission of St. Martin’s Press. All rights reserved.


  • 11:07:05

    MS. DIANE REHMAnd what you're listening to is the sound of crickets, katydids and cicadas mixed together. The man behind the music is David Rothenberg, professor, musician, philosopher and specialist in inter-species duets. Five years ago he joined me to talk about the mystery of whale songs and why birds sing. Today he explores the relationship between insect sounds and music. His new book is titled "Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise."

  • 11:07:42

    MS. DIANE REHMAuthor David Rothenberg joins me here in the studio. You're welcome to be part of the program. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet.

  • 11:08:03

    MS. DIANE REHMGood morning, it's good to see you again.

  • 11:08:07

    MR. DAVID ROTHENBERGThanks so much for inviting me back, Diane.

  • 11:08:11

    REHMOh, well, this is a true delight to listen to. Tell us why after birds, after whales, you decided to focus on insects?

  • 11:08:25

    ROTHENBERGWell, I really see this as the conclusion of the trilogy, these three basic parts of the animal world making very different kinds of sounds that I think really relate to music. And birds are the most obvious. People think they're singing beautiful songs. Whales are very mysterious. Nobody knew about those songs until the 1960s.

  • 11:08:48

    ROTHENBERGBut insect sound is the oldest of them all. It's been there even millions of years older than the other kinds of songs and I think all human sense of what music is, what rhythm is, and our paradoxical love of strange, mysterious tones and noises must have evolved with these sounds surrounding us.

  • 11:09:09

    REHMYou're saying that music as we know it today could have initially come from some of the sounds of insects?

  • 11:09:25

    ROTHENBERGYeah, I think particularly human interest in rhythm and in very strange textures and noises I really think evolved in a world where there were insect sounds all around, all around us. And I think it's not really discussed so much where this human sense of rhythm comes from.

  • 11:09:47

    ROTHENBERGSometimes people say it comes from the beat of the human heart or from the rhythm of walking, but I think it could just as easily have come from the sounds of the environment. And in general, people like the sounds of an insect chorus singing crickets and katydids at night.

  • 11:10:05

    ROTHENBERGAnd they think of it as something nostalgic for the countryside, a warm summer evening, but I think it goes deeper than that, way back to the world of our ancestors. We evolved in forests, in savannahs, in Africa surrounded by a vast world of pulsing sounds, insects, each one is making a tiny sound.

  • 11:10:26

    ROTHENBERGThey don't have to do much individually, but listen to all the other ones and together they form these great rhythmic compositions.

  • 11:10:38

    REHMYou're convincing me with your language. You must really be looking forward to the emergence of the cicadas.

  • 11:10:49

    ROTHENBERGThat's right. I was sure that a big story in this book is this very remarkable kind of insect only appearing, for some strange reason in the United States, in the Eastern United States, these kinds of cicadas that emerge en masse in different populations once every 17 years or some other groups once every 13 years.

  • 11:11:12

    ROTHENBERGOtherwise they're neither seen nor heard at all. And when this happens, people are just shocked by how loud it is, how many come out. And, you know, here in this area, around Washington, Maryland, Virginia, you have several broods overlapping so you have -- it's one of the best places to experience them.

  • 11:11:29

    ROTHENBERGIn New York where I'm from, pretty much this is the big time. So the last time they appeared was 1996, that's when I first started thinking about this whole phenomenon.

  • 11:11:39

    REHMSo and remind us how the cicadas make their music.

  • 11:11:47

    ROTHENBERGAh, they have an organ called a tymbal that kind of vibrates. It's like a drum head in their bellies, like vroosh. They kind of vibrate it. It's kind of unique. They're not making sounds with their wings like crickets and grasshoppers. They're not tapping like some treehoppers and leafhoppers do. They're vibrating their abdomens, vrooosh, making this remarkable sound.

  • 11:12:13

    REHMThey're not rubbing legs, do they, though?

  • 11:12:14

    ROTHENBERGAh, you know, that's what crickets are doing.

  • 11:12:17

    REHMThat's what crickets are doing.

  • 11:12:18

    ROTHENBERGBut cicadas have a tymbal, a unique thing.

  • 11:12:22

    REHMAre they actually mating noises?

  • 11:12:25

    ROTHENBERGAh, well, that's the great story that, you know, I talk in the book about how these scientists John Cooley and David Marshall. Seventeen years ago, they really discovered how complex and interesting the mating habits of the 17-year cicada actually are.

  • 11:12:43

    ROTHENBERGIt was assumed that the males make this sound in vast numbers, in huge, huge resonances, huge crowds in the millions and the females get all excited. They hear this noise. This is it. This is what -- we've been waiting 17 years underground alive for this and here's the sound. Mating is going to happen. That's what we thought was going on.

  • 11:13:04

    ROTHENBERGBut it turns out it's much more complicated. And it turns out never before had any scientist really carefully observed and listened so much to what's going on and Cooley and Marshall discovered that first the male makes a sound and in the most common of these 17-year species the sound is like ah-phe-ro. They go ooowho, zaaoowho and then they keep singing and singing and singing and nothing happens unless a female who is nearby makes a flick of its wing, tik, like a little wing flick, exactly one third of a second after the male stops, weoouu.

  • 11:13:46

    ROTHENBERGAnd you can practice this and if you time your click the right time, then the male will approach you if you're clicking and snapping your fingers. And then he'll move on to a second song and, again, nobody knew about this until 17 years ago.

  • 11:13:58

    ROTHENBERGThe second song is peeouweeouweeou, song number two. And then you get to hear one more wing flick, tik, again and then they start to mate and you hear this ta, ta, ta, ta, ta, ta, ta, ta. Third song and that's you know, nobody knew this until 17 years ago and this amazing discovery, these two scientists made, that they made and I celebrate them.

  • 11:14:24

    REHMAnd I celebrate the fact that along with the book you have included a CD with many of the sounds that you then play along with. Here's one where you're playing live bass clarinet with cicadas.

  • 11:15:19

    REHMTell us what's going on here.

  • 11:15:21

    ROTHENBERGAh, well, this is a live performance recording from last spring near Lexington, Va. where there was a small emergence, brood number one came out and I was playing my bass clarinet together with millions of singing cicadas. And you might ask, why do something like that? Why connect this clarinet sound to this wash of what sounds like white noise, shhhhhh?

  • 11:15:48

    ROTHENBERGBecause once you hear the story, I just told you about the various mating sounds of the cicada, it doesn't just sound like noise. You hear a whole series of sounds, the different mating sounds of the male cicadas and you feel like you're joining in to the vast orchestra.

  • 11:16:04

    ROTHENBERGThe way I described it before is the simplified version, just the clearest series of sounds. Actually, you have two other species, all coming out at the same time making different sounds. One of them is making this wooossshh and that one species synchronizes. You hear waves like at the beach, wooossshh, wooossshh and they, too, have their secondary and tertiary mating sounds.

  • 11:16:29

    ROTHENBERGAnd you know now that I've had them pointed out by Professor Cooley then, now I hear them as I'm playing along. And we also heard a few of those ah-phe-ro cicadas in the background, weoouu. And so as a musician, I try and find my way into that, playing along with this background.

  • 11:16:47

    ROTHENBERGAnd the CD has some live pieces like this and some of them are also constructed in the studio out of fragments of insect sounds a whole different way. And I really felt working on this project that it changed my own ideas of what I thought were musical sounds and what was noise, like it started to take over my consciousness. I was making a different kind of music at the end than when I started the whole project.

  • 11:17:08

    REHMSo working with these various insects has affected your own sense of music?

  • 11:17:20

    ROTHENBERGThat's right. Just as when I worked with birds and whales, working with the sound world of insects and learning about how they use sound and spending time with them actually in person has changed my ideas, expanded my ideas in a different direction as to what can be done musically.

  • 11:17:38

    ROTHENBERGAnd I really think music is this mysterious kind of communicative thing that means so much for people, for humans, and yet we really don't know how it works. We don't know why it's so important to us. It's kind of ambiguous and emotional and can cut across cultural lines.

  • 11:17:56

    ROTHENBERGI can sit down and play music with somebody from Japan or New Guinea who I might not be able to share a spoken language with, but musically a connection can be made. And so I decided to take the risk and the leap to do the same things with other species, like who knows what's really going on? But some kind of music can be made together with these other species' worlds of sound.

  • 11:18:16

    REHMDavid Rothenberg, he is a jazz musician, professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. His new book is titled "Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise."

  • 11:20:05

    REHMAnd welcome back. David Rothenberg is with me. He has a brand-new book out titled, "Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise." He's a jazz musician, professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He's been a guest on this program before. He's written books about animals and music, including "Why Birds Sing" and "Thousand Mile Song." Do join us, 800-433-8850.

  • 11:20:49

    REHMHere's an email from Ray who says: What's the difference with cicadas one hears every summer in Italy and those American who perform intermittently?

  • 11:21:08

    ROTHENBERGAn excellent question. Now, the 17-year and 13-year cicadas that we are just talking about are definitely the exception rather than the rule. They are unusual. In most parts of the world and even in the United States, of course, we have many species of cicadas that come out every year. They usually come later in the summer. They never come in such numbers. You don't have millions of them all at once.

  • 11:21:34

    ROTHENBERGThey have louder songs that are more -- all it takes is about 10 or 15 to drown out any other sound in the neighborhood. You have -- one species is called the scissor grinder cicada. It's going like, (makes noise). And then there's the dog day cicada coming later in the summer, (makes noise). Just big washes of noise that, you know, they come every year. But it takes them, as well, several years to mature underground.

  • 11:22:04

    ROTHENBERGBut what's remarkable is we don't know how many years it takes because no one's been able to figure it out because they don't come out in sufficient numbers. So you can't tell how old a cicada is and no one's managed to raise one in captivity or followed one under a tree to count the number of years it takes for your average annual cicada to come out. They also need several years to mature underground.

  • 11:22:24

    REHMSo do they look any different from the 17-year?

  • 11:22:30

    ROTHENBERGThey do. They're bigger and some of them are black, some of them are green. They're not of the appearance of -- you can always tell a 17-year or a 13-year cicada, which are of the genus Magicicada, because there's something magical about the 17-year, 13-year thing. They have orange eyes, black bodies, little orange trim.

  • 11:22:53

    REHMAh, yes.

  • 11:22:54

    ROTHENBERGAnd they're smaller. They're still bigger than most insects but they are smaller than the annual ones. And they are, you know, you'll know if you see one, the big reddish, orange eyes.

  • 11:23:03

    REHMYou found a five-volume compilation by an entomologist showing that insects have been celebrated through ancient times.

  • 11:23:24

    ROTHENBERGYes. This is one reason why if you're researching anything you should waste a lot of time surfing the internet because you might stumble on something. In the case, I just stumbled upon an obituary of an entomologist named Keith Kevan and he died in the 1980s or '90s, I can't remember when. And I started reading it. He sounded like an incredible figure in the field. And just a random discovery.

  • 11:23:50

    ROTHENBERGAt the end of this article about him, it said in his spare time, Professor Kevan compiled lists and translations of any poem he could find from all the major classical languages of the world that dealt with singing insects. And he self-published these books while he was running the Lyman Entomological Museum outside of Montreal. And it said, copies of these books can still be found in the basement.

  • 11:24:16

    ROTHENBERGAnd this is written in the '90s. And I said, oh, does this museum exist? So I found it. I emailed the director. Do you have these books? And she said, how could you possibly know about those?

  • 11:24:24

    REHMOh, my God.

  • 11:24:26

    ROTHENBERGNo one had ever asked.

  • 11:24:27


  • 11:24:28

    ROTHENBERGNobody had ever asked for them. And I got them. And there was so much material, you know, much of it from Asian languages -- Chinese and Japanese -- showing for such a long time, insects have been celebrated for their sounds and written about.

  • 11:24:42

    REHMAnd you even found that they were celebrated in ancient Greece.

  • 11:24:47

    ROTHENBERGThat's right. Ancient Greece, you know, often discussed -- people knew even then that cicadas, that there were something unique about their emergence to just seeing fly mate and die. That there was something musically celebratory about this. They're not eating so much because they've been preparing underground. They come out, they're alive for just a few weeks celebrating these things. And so, even Plato's talking about this.

  • 11:25:18

    ROTHENBERGOne time Socrates leaves the city, you know, he's an urban guy talking about the deepest questions. One time in the (word?), I believe, when he leaves the city. They have this discussion about, you know, why should we leave the city, you're a city guy. He goes, no, here we have the cicadas, learn from them.

  • 11:25:38

    REHMAnd then moving to our contemporary world. You have Bob Dylan's song, "Day of the Locust."

  • 11:25:47

    ROTHENBERG"Day of the Locust," yeah, Bob Dylan, you know, was accepting an honorary degree at Princeton. And he talks about the locusts singing and it was just really creepy and he had to get out of there. And they were singing, he says, they sing for me. And of course, many people think that cicadas are locusts. And I want to actually make a poster or a T-shirt that says, we are not locusts because locusts are known to come in swarms and destroy crops.

  • 11:26:13

    ROTHENBERGAnd cicadas don't do that much damage. Maybe a little, but not too much. And they're just not the same things. And we can forgive Bob for making that mistake.

  • 11:26:24

    REHMAnd then you had a trip in Missouri in 2011 when you played a saxophone with cicadas.

  • 11:27:07

    REHMWhat's going on here? Tell us about it.

  • 11:27:11

    ROTHENBERGI would have to say that in this piece it is actually a bass clarinet played along with a sample of probably a katydid, not a cicada. But what's useful about this piece is that this is one of the pieces on the CD made in the studio to show what you can do with a fragment of an insect's sound and how you can turn it into just about anything electronically and it can change the way you think of music.

  • 11:27:37

    ROTHENBERGAnd one strand in the book, which some people say might be getting a little technical is talking about what insect sounds have to do with electronic music, which has become this whole growing area of musical creation, making sounds out of noises that previously might not have been thought as being musical. And a lot of these sounds are not coincidentally insect-like. You know, this strange timbres, these buzzes and these kinds of things now become appreciated as musical material.

  • 11:28:04

    ROTHENBERGAnd I think one of the reasons we like these sounds is the hearken back to our distant love of the world and of insect choruses going around. And so this piece really demonstrates how you could construct something out of insect sounds and make them musical material by dividing up the sound into tiny little fragments and reassembling it a whole different way.

  • 11:28:26

    REHMWhat about rhythm? Time and rhythm?

  • 11:28:33

    ROTHENBERGIt's an essential part of the world of insect music. And the most basic kinds of rhythm we think of with insects are, say, the sounds of crickets, maybe the snowy tree cricket who you often hear but never see going (makes noise). You hear this all the time and they synchronize. So they're all sort of in rhythm together. How do they do this if they're just little crickets? It turns out, the way they do it is similar to how fireflies synchronize.

  • 11:29:00

    ROTHENBERGThat all the individual insect has to do is hear a neighboring sound and slightly move his sound a little closer to it. That's all -- and scientists have identified like a little one particular neuron in their brains are responding to this. They get a little closer, a little closer, and bam, they're synchronized. And they stay altogether.

  • 11:29:17

    REHMAnd all of a sudden you may have an orchestra. Talk about Dr. Fung and his cricket orchestra.

  • 11:29:25

    ROTHENBERGOh, yes. Yeah. Yes, Mr. Fung, Lars Fredriksson, is a Swedish sinophile, expert on Chinese culture. He was librarian in the library of Chinese collection in Stockholm until recently. And he was obsessed with a very venerable tradition in China of collecting crickets and keeping them to listen to their sounds. And I went to visit him in Stockholm and saw his cricket paraphernalia.

  • 11:29:57

    ROTHENBERGHis cricket cages and learned about how he kept for a long time in a small apartment in Stockholm, 108 singing crickets he'd all put together and do performances with. And that he just love the sound and try to make it accessible, available to people by going to China, buying the crickets, bringing them back and keeping them alive just so they could sing in his midst. And he invited different musicians to play with them.

  • 11:30:27

    ROTHENBERGAnd he really talked about how this is a whole world, beautiful sound that is very respected and understood in the Asian world. And even in -- you see popular Asian movies, popular Chinese films, insects are appearing constantly at romantic moments, butterflies, crickets are singing. They're taken very seriously. Whereas in the Western world, we don't listen to these things so seriously even though there are so many species that are just as beautiful, if not more so, in their songs than the Asian ones.

  • 11:31:01

    REHMBut you say that the music of crickets has a connection to violence. How so?

  • 11:31:10

    ROTHENBERGAre you speaking of how in China the same very crickets you could collect for the purpose of listening to them sing are also bought and sold for fighting.

  • 11:31:21


  • 11:31:21

    ROTHENBERGAnd the fighting ones are worth a lot more because they have, you know, they have the cricket battles, two males going against each other. And the ones who are very successful are worth a lot of money. And people will pay thousands of dollars for them because they will win in fights. And they have one fight, then another fight.

  • 11:32:03

    REHMTell us what's going on.

  • 11:32:04

    ROTHENBERGSo this piece is called "Chirped to Death." And the title is not about fighting actually. It's about the fact that H.A. Allard, a famous early 20th century American entomologist was one of the first scientists to say, hey, insect sounds are beautiful. Whatever function they have, they're also beautiful. And these crickets will just keep singing and singing and singing, and it's not just because they want to attract a mate. They love the beauty of the sound here.

  • 11:32:33

    ROTHENBERGHe wrote this in the 1920s, as a scientist. So he was one of the scientists, I'd say also along with Charles Darwin, who believed that beauty is an important part of evolution. You know, this aspect of the science of sound and the behavior of animals is often overlooked, but there have always been scientists who recognized that, you know, these creatures could chirp themselves to death. They just won't stop. And it's -- they must appreciate the beauty that's there, Allard wrote.

  • 11:33:06

    ROTHENBERGAnd a particular piece in the background of the sounds are made of the tones of the snowy tree crickets slowed down. And then above it, my friend, the overtone singer, Timothy Hill, is singing with his voice more than one pitch at the same time, like a technique based on Mongolian and Tibetan overtone singing (makes noise). He's making a whole series of pitches together with this sounds. Thereby showing a connection between what the human voice can do and what the cricket voice can do.

  • 11:34:04

    REHMWe have so many callers. I'll open the phones, 800-433-8850. To Indianapolis, good morning, Darrell, you're on the air.

  • 11:34:20

    DARRELLGood morning, Diane.

  • 11:34:20


  • 11:34:22

    DARRELLHi. And David, correct?

  • 11:34:23


  • 11:34:24

    DARRELLThank you, Diane, first of all, for this show. I am a composer myself. And so I find this intriguing. I have a long love of contemporary composition and using new types of sounds. It was probably a long time ago that the basic definition of music is organized sound. And regardless of where it comes from, a true composer can make great music out of it. And whether it's insects or animals or pieces of plastic or rock, it doesn't matter. And so I just find this whole thing very exciting.

  • 11:35:05

    ROTHENBERGYeah, thanks. And, as you know, if music is organized sound, then what these animals are doing is quite organized in different ways. And some would say what these synchronizing tree crickets are doing is self-organized, nobody is conducting, nobody is planning it. Each one has to know very little to put it together and make this sound that makes sense. Then you combine this one species with a hundreds of other species singing and they do kind of listen to each other.

  • 11:35:33

    ROTHENBERGPerhaps more clearly than birds or whales do. The insects, even though each individual one is a simple organism, they all listen together and form something that reflects an organization, which is kind of remarkable.

  • 11:35:45

    REHMDarrell, thanks for your call. To Olympia, WA. Good morning, Sharon.

  • 11:35:53

    SHARONHi, Diane.

  • 11:35:54

    REHMHi there. Me and my dog Maggie really like your show.

  • 11:35:58

    REHMI'm so glad.

  • 11:36:00

    SHARONIt's 8 o'clock in the morning, but for us it's noon because we get up at 4:00 and we do our chores and go out hunting into the forest and fields and wetlands. And then we come back, yes, and I got to tell you, this morning Maggie usually lays down in her bed. You know, like, you know, it's time for a morning nap. But when that man stated to play the clarinet, Maggie opened her eyes, held out her ears, raised up in her bed and was pointed to the radio.

  • 11:36:35

    REHMHow about that? Well, you take good care of Maggie. I'm sure she'll continue to enjoy the program. And of course what's so interesting is these dogs are hearing the clarinet in a whole different way than we are. You know, she's hearing these higher overtone.

  • 11:36:52

    REHMVery high.

  • 11:36:53

    ROTHENBERGShe's hearing a different part of the sound. A sound I might be making and not even know it's there.

  • 11:36:58

    REHMAnd you also talk about the fact that it took you awhile before you began to really like the sounds of these insects. I want to talk more about that with you after we take a short break, because perhaps there are lots of others who feel as you did. But now their minds may changed as well.

  • 11:40:04

    REHMAnd in this world there are many sounds, some of which we pay a lots of attention to. Others we don't, but David Rothenberg is bringing to us something very special. His new book is titled, "Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise." Throughout the hour we've been talking with David and playing some of the sounds of his own music combined with the sounds of bugs, crickets, cicadas, katydids and now he's got lots of suggestions from listeners.

  • 11:41:02

    REHMJudy in Ohio says, "Shouldn't there be a book four. What about amphibians? Cicadas remind me a lot of frogs." And then Tweets. One says, "Great topic. Bee-bop with its fast runs and Gamelan music with its many layers are unwestern. Do they imitate insects nature?" And finally, "Tell David we would love the next book an album to involve the music of the wind."

  • 11:41:41

    ROTHENBERGI love that idea.

  • 11:41:42

    REHMIsn't that great?

  • 11:41:43

    ROTHENBERGI just might take you up on that, the music of the wind. When we're speaking of amphibians and frogs and a lot of the ways amphibians use sound is very similar to insects. There's even one standard, almost textbook on this, called acoustic communication in insects and enerons (sp?). Eneron is a larger category than amphibians. And so showing how they do things in very similar ways of synchronizing and overlapping. And I know certain species of frogs use silence as a signal. When they stop making the sound it means something. Very interesting.

  • 11:42:20

    REHMWhen humans stop making sounds...

  • 11:42:22

    ROTHENBERGYeah, exactly.

  • 11:42:24 means something.

  • 11:42:24

    ROTHENBERGYeah. And so then -- and then I was intrigued, one of the callers said Bee-bop and Gamelan music are nonwestern.

  • 11:42:33


  • 11:42:34

    ROTHENBERGIf Bee-bop is nonwestern then where does it come from? We know that there might be an insect-like antecedent in, you know, on the website that goes with this book, I talk about -- I have a playlist of human music influenced by insects. And one thing I have in there is "The Flight of the Bumblebee," you know, which is -- it's an attempt, really, you know, it's a funny piece. It's virtuosic, it's an attempt to try and encompass a common natural sound in the chromatic western music. It's kind of hard (makes noise).

  • 11:43:06

    ROTHENBERGYou know it's a little off, but it's kind of fun. Everyone keeps redoing it and one of the, you know, the precursors of Bee-bop, one of the best versions is by trumpeter, Harry James with his orchestra is a kind of rough and dangerous version of that. I also have a recording of the insect chorus at night in Bali after the Gamelan concert. After the Gamelan concert with its overlapping gongs and drums and flutes all in many different overlapping cycles of rhythm. When the concert stopped all the insects were even more synchronized than before.

  • 11:43:41

    REHMAh, how wonderful.

  • 11:43:42

    ROTHENBERGThey may have picked up on what was going on there.

  • 11:43:44

    REHMBut you do write that you don't always like the sounds that bugs make.

  • 11:43:50

    ROTHENBERGAbsolutely, yeah. Yeah, and some cicadas, make no mistake, some cicadas in China and Argentina -- people have sent me recordings. They sound like someone scratching a chalkboard at super huge volume.

  • 11:44:02


  • 11:44:02

    ROTHENBERGAnd we're not going to play that, something incredibly screechy and some people, friends in France, say, oh, you're writing this book. Do you have any idea if we can stop those horrible cicadas that sing every August? What an awful noise. And, you know, we must remember when we talk about animal music it doesn't necessarily mean sounds that we like. They may be making sounds with the whole, you know, beating to a whole different drummer.

  • 11:44:27

    REHMAnd they may love their own sounds.

  • 11:44:31

    ROTHENBERGThat's right. They probably do. And, you know, it's again something -- another book I wrote, "Survival of the Beautiful" talks about how Charles Darwin wrote things like birds have a natural aesthetic sense. They appreciate beauty. That's why they have beautiful plumage and beautiful songs.

  • 11:44:47

    REHMExcept I take issue because what has happened with birds is that the male of the specie gets the beauty and the female is the duller of the two.

  • 11:45:06

    ROTHENBERGExcept it is only inside the brains of the females that the whole aesthetic sense exists. There's no tale of the peacock without the females deciding or evolving -- not so much deciding -- evolving a desire for this, which I would say...

  • 11:45:20


  • 11:45:20

    ROTHENBERG...which I would say is not practical. This is not survival of the fittest. It's survival of the cool, the beautiful, the weird.

  • 11:45:26


  • 11:45:26

    ROTHENBERGLook at this cicada thing. Every 17 years for what possible purpose could this have evolved. It's definitely not an easy solution. The honest answer is we have absolutely no idea.

  • 11:45:39

    REHMLet's go...

  • 11:45:40

    ROTHENBERGThere's some theories about it, but none of them really proven.

  • 11:45:43

    REHMLet's go to Miami, Fla., good morning, Carol.

  • 11:45:47

    CAROLGood morning, Diane.

  • 11:45:48


  • 11:45:49

    CAROLHello. And welcome to -- and thank you to David Rothenberg for his beautiful music. And I have a passion for crickets and for nature and for the wind and for some of these things. So I really thank you for -- but do you have a CD out other than a book?

  • 11:46:10

    ROTHENBERGAbsolutely. All the sounds you've been hearing are from the CD called "Bug Music," which also came out simultaneously. And, you know, you can hear all these things. You can find it wherever CD's are still being sold, wherever music is streaming these days it's there.

  • 11:46:27

    REHMExactly. All right, to Elkins, W. Va., hi, Chris.

  • 11:46:33

    CHRISHello. Thank you for taking my question and very interesting topic.

  • 11:46:37

    REHMI'm glad.

  • 11:46:39

    CHRISI studied music both at the undergraduate and graduate level and I thought that I always had and I'm curious to see what your guest -- if he's given any thought to this is I'm very familiar, enjoyed the films of David Lynch. And if you're familiar at all with David Lynch films he uses a lot of interesting sounds and sounds that I've always thought may have some basis in nature.

  • 11:47:02

    CHRISAnd my thought is that there are a lot of sounds created by insects, created by animals that aren't necessarily detectable on a conscious level, but because they suffuse nature that it's very possible that they kind of creep in there, those sounds, those noises on a subconscious level. And that certain composers, certain film scores they use these sounds without necessarily consciously knowing that they're using them, but they come out and we respond to them in a very emotional way because they're kind of pulling out an experience that we don't think about, but still kind of seeps in there. So just curious if your guest has given any thought to that.

  • 11:47:40

    ROTHENBERGYeah, you say a lot of interesting things there. I hadn't really thought about it, but I'm pretty sure David Lynch would be interested in all these sounds. He has used such sounds in a lot of his work and he definitely has some very particular ideas of music, all the music he's produced for his films and beyond the films.

  • 11:47:59

    ROTHENBERGI also think that, you know, I really believe that in music education all students should have to deal with the music of animals. They should learn this stuff, you know, undergraduates, graduates, performers, composers. You should have to do one class or one unit on the music of nature. It should be standard stuff.

  • 11:48:17


  • 11:48:17

    ROTHENBERGAnd one thing I want to work on in the future is bringing these ideas into music education at many levels.

  • 11:48:23

    REHMGood idea. I want to go back to Missouri where you did play the saxophone with cicadas.

  • 11:49:30

    ROTHENBERGYes, so when I was playing with the cicadas in the image that you can see on the website and the film. There's just hundreds of them crawling all over me and also inside my shirt. You know, it was pretty crazy. That's the first time I was doing that. There were so many.

  • 11:49:45

    REHMWhy did you do that?

  • 11:49:45

    ROTHENBERGI wanted to get in the midst of this. I wanted to be surrounded by these creatures.

  • 11:49:49

    REHMYou wanted to feel it.

  • 11:49:50

    ROTHENBERGIt was great. It was funny.

  • 11:49:52

    REHMHow did it...

  • 11:49:52

    ROTHENBERGYou know, they were tickling me. I was laughing and there was so much noise.

  • 11:49:54

    REHMThey were tickling you?

  • 11:49:55

    ROTHENBERGYeah, and that's when I learned to trust them. You know, they're not very dangerous and the most dangerous thing, maybe, one perches on your ear and sings really loudly. Now that's -- it was so loud. That's not what you're hearing now. You're hearing the piece we made afterwards in the studio taking these cicadas and recording all kinds of sounds they were making and then cutting and pasting them together.

  • 11:50:15

    ROTHENBERGBut I was with my friend, Charles Lindsey, he -- I call him the cicada wrangler on the CD. You know, he grabbed all the cicadas. He put them on microphones and watched them flutter their wings and -- and we played a live concert with them in Illinois in Champagne. And we took them from this tree where there were millions. We brought them in this little jar and we took them to the concert.

  • 11:50:39

    ROTHENBERGAnd by the evening they were getting kind of sleepy because they're kind of singing during the day usually. And they've very cooperative. We took them out and put them on microphone. With the right sounds in the background they started to sing, joined in. Then when we were done we put them back in the little jar and took them back the next morning to the very same tree we got them from, one hour away.

  • 11:50:57

    REHMDavid, some people listening to your talk about covering your body with cicadas might begin to wonder whether your behavior is other than rational.

  • 11:51:17

    ROTHENBERGWell, you know, I don't think it's irrational to -- you want to play music with this world. I did not put them all over me. They just flew there, you know. I didn't stick the cicadas all over myself in some kind of stunt. I just was out there making music and they all descended upon me and there they were.

  • 11:51:33

    REHMDid they get into your hair?

  • 11:51:35

    ROTHENBERGThey were in my hair. They were everywhere. And then they were -- I helped -- it got me a little bit closer to them, that moment, understanding their world and...

  • 11:51:47

    REHMWhat did you learn from that experience?

  • 11:51:50

    ROTHENBERGI learned that, you know, they're part of this vast rare and, kind of, you know, deep mystery in nature that -- these kinds of things that one rarely gets to experience. And, again, I think of H. A. Allard who wrote about the 17-year cicadas as well as the beauty of cricket songs. He said this is like one of those rare beautiful moments in a human life, like the arrival of a comet or some rare natural occurrence or an eclipse, something you rarely get to see. You know that it's somehow common, but individually we rarely get to participate in this.

  • 11:52:29

    ROTHENBERGAnd when it happens I think a lot of people don't pay much attention to it. So Allard was the pioneering entomologist. He paid attention to this. As a musician I want to find -- learn whatever I can from this amazing sound. So I felt I needed to go out there, sing and play with the cicadas and if they wanted to fly all over me so be it. Let it happen.

  • 11:52:49

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And a caller in Davie, Fla. good morning, Gordon.

  • 11:53:02

    GORDONGood morning. It's such a wonderful subject and I've had a great deal of experience with the cicada, but not in Florida, actually in Haiti. And back in the mid-80's, uh, 1980s we had a complete resurgence of the population, as you say the 17-year population. I'm not sure that it operates on 17 years there, but it was an absolute invasion of (word?) near Port-au-Prince.

  • 11:53:37

    GORDONAnd by 9:00 o'clock in the evening, if you had lamps on, electric lights, whatever the wall of that building or house would be absolutely covered. There wouldn't -- you wouldn't be able to see a white wall paint -- or a wall painted white. You would only see it dark with cicadas. And they were no problem except for the cleaning up. And they had these very brilliant red eyes. And once in a while in a rarity there were some that were luminescent or iridescent. They gave off some energy.

  • 11:54:18


  • 11:54:19

    ROTHENBERGYeah, I haven't heard much about the Haitian cicadas, but it sounds like there's some very mysterious goings on there.

  • 11:54:26

    REHMAnd there is one last track that we want to play. It's an upbeat song incorporating squeals of a pine sawyer beetle.

  • 11:55:08

    REHMTell us about a pine sawyer beetle.

  • 11:55:12

    ROTHENBERGA pine sawyer beetle is the kind of beetle that, you know, might be in your wood pile when you bring those logs into the house in the winter before you put in the fire. And you start hearing sounds inside the -- inside the logs they're kind of eating. They're kind of making noises inside. And this is a pretty common insect and this is the last track on the CD. It's called the year of insect thinking. It's what happened to me after a year of dealing with all this.

  • 11:55:37

    ROTHENBERGAnd this one does have the soprano saxophone mixed together with insect-like noises, kind of this strumming rhythmic thing. And those of you who are listening on some big speakers you'll hear this really low subwoofer bass that's kind of barely audible that's -- (word?) streams of the sounds of the insect world and this kind of like jumble of all this noise coming out. And so this is one of the pieces on the CD, you know, built on the sense that I surrounded myself with strange noises and rhythms and thrums and buzzes for a year or more and saw -- I listened and tried to figure out what it would do to my way of thinking about nature and life and the kind of music I would make. And it just took me in directions I never thought I would go.

  • 11:56:27

    REHMDavid Rothenberg, he is a jazz musician, professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. His new book, "Bug Music: How Insects Gave us Rhythm and Noise." What a pleasure to talk with you.

  • 11:56:49

    ROTHENBERGThanks so much for inviting me back, Diane.

  • 11:56:53

    REHMAnd thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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