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  Yellow-headed blackbird calling
The musical sounds of birds and other animals give clues to the deep roots of human musicality.
Photo by David Klein
A major traveling exhibition on the music of nature—and the nature of music—is scheduled to open in 2007 as a result of a collaboration among ASTC, the Science Museum of Minnesota, and the BioMusic Program of National Musical Arts, an interdisciplinary group of scientists and musicians. Planning was supportec by a grant from the National Science Foundation. We share here highlights of the planning process.

Biomusic—An Emerging Field of Scientific Research

Visitor Studies Related to Music and Sound

Other Related Exhibits and Programs


Biomusic—An Emerging Field of Scientific Research

Sound technology and cross-disciplinary approaches to research are creating insights into the nature of music that are as yet little known by the general public. This emerging research field was acknowledged in 1986 by the National Academy of Sciences, when the BioMusic Program was established by NAS's resident ensemble, National Musical Arts (NMA). In recognizing the program, NAS's then-president Frank Press referred to "the powerful new understanding being offered by the wider realization of the shared principles of science and art... and a renaissance spirit of blending the different parts of knowledge to help us understand the whole."

In 2002, the California Academy of Sciences organized a symposium, Nature's Music: The Science of Bird Song, in memory of one of the BioMusic Program's founding members, Luis Baptista—further evidence of the growing interest of the scientific community in this emerging field of research.

Biomusic researchers combine the analytical tools of musicology with research in a wide variety of fields-neuroscience, biology, zoology, environmental science, physics, psychology, mathematics, and anthropology. Among the recent findings (see References for citations):

  • Bird songs often use the same rhythmic variations, pitch relationships, and combinations of notes as those used by human composers.
  • Human composers, in their turn, have been inspired by the musical sounds of birds. Mozart's "Musical Joke" was the subject of research by ornithologists Luis Baptista and Meredith West, who were able to demonstrate that the piece—composed as a requiem to Mozart's pet starling—features exact musical quotations from this bird.
  • Humpback whales compose songs with rhymes and repeated phrases, which are imitated by other whales in the same breeding area and evolve over time.
  • When a harmonic interval is played, neurons throughout the auditory system that are sensitive to one or more frequencies contained in the interval respond by firing action potentials—suggesting that certain rules for music may be innate.
  • Neuro-imaging studies of professional musicians performing error-detection tasks provide evidence that music involves widely distributed, but locally specialized, regions of the human brain.
  • Human infants as young as two to six months prefer consonant sounds, like perfect fifths, over dissonant ones, suggesting that "the rudiments of music listening are gifts of nature rather than products of culture."
  • Initial experiments with bonobos who compose music using synthesizers have shown evidence of sophisticated musical understanding. (Experiments are part of a planned multi-year study by a research team under the direction of Patricia Gray and Mark Tramo in collaboration with Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and a community of bonobos recently relocated to Iowa from the Language Research Center, Georgia State University.)

Visitor Studies Related to Music and Sound

Little public knowledge, but high interest—Although as yet little known to the public, research on the musical sounds of nature, and the deep roots of human musicality, has innate appeal. Following a AAAS symposium and the January 2001 publication of two articles in the journal Science, biomusic was the subject of wide coverage in the international media. Science News, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, the BBC, and the CBC ran stories, among many others.

Music, learning, and the brain also have been a focus of attention among educators and parents, in part because of publicity given to the so-called "Mozart effect"—based on results of a study that have never been replicated. While Mozart may not make children smarter, however, project advisor Donald Hodges says that music is "a central core property of what it means to be a human being."

A preliminary front-end study by Joyce Ma of the Exploratorium showed that visitors made a number of connections with what was a first an unfamiliar topic—making associations, for example, with nature recordings—and expressed interest in learning more.

Studies of earlier exhibition projects—Following are pertinent findings from studies carried out in connection with several earlier exhibitions about sound and music, based on a 2002 literature review by George Hein of Lesley University.

Musiquest Musiquest
Contact: Bronwen Edwards
Musiquest: Exploring the Science of Sound in Cardiff, Wales, by Bronwen Edwards, Hand to Hand, 15/3 (Fall 2001): 3.
Pertinent findings:
People don't expect to find music activities in a science center.
People don't realize that music and science are related.
People come for the music.
Good technology is available to help people gain musical experience without specific musical instrument skills.

New England Aquarium
Boston, Massachusetts
Sounds of the Sea
Sounds of the Sea interview Interview with Billy Spitzer, Living on Earth, August 2000
Final, Summative Evaluation Report, Sounds of the Sea Exhibition, New England Aquarium, by George E. Hein and Elsa Bailey, 1999
Pertinent findings:
Visitors already knew that sound was important for marine mammals.
After experiencing this exhibition, they had more knowledge of noise pollution in the deep ocean.
The Sound Tunnel held visitors' attention longest.

The Science Place
Dallas, Texas
Planned exhibition on music
Psychology of Music Front-End Evaluation, by Kirsten Sabina Buchner and Marianna Adams, January 9, 2000
Based on interviews of 59 people at Science Place and Dallas Symphony Orchestra performance. Pertinent findings:
Music is an important part of the daily lives of most visitors.
Visitors hold very strong associations with music (e.g., vivid memories, strong emotional responses).
Few visitors are aware of research on the psychology of music.
Visitors are not interested in analyzing music or exploring music theory.

Other Related Exhibits and Programs

ECHO interactive learning centerChicago Symphony
ECHO interactive learning center
Chicago, Illinois

Rhythm exhibitionChildren's Discovery Museum
San Jose, California
Components related to the biology of sound and music are Heartbeats (a bass drum and heartbeat monitor) and Soundscapes (an oscilloscope and visual sound monitor).
Developer: Tom Nielsen

Cornell Laboratory of OrnithologyCornell Laboratory of Ornithology
Ithaca, New York
The Visitor Center includes several exhibits developed in collaboration with the Science Museum of Minnesota, including a Sound Matching Game and Sound Studio.
Contact: Rick Bonney

Detroit Zoo
Detroit, Michigan
Do You Know Your Natives? lets visitors play 20-second segments of frog songs by pressing buttons on a wall-hung unit, then add more songs to compose a frog chorus.

Deutsches MuseumDeutsches Museum
Munich, Germany
Music Synthesizers

Experience Music
Seattle, Washington
Interactive experiences, artifacts, and a performance space

San Francisco, California
Sounds of the Sea interview Listen: The Sonic Series, public programs that are part of updating and expansion of exhibit collection about sound and hearing
Sounds of the Sea interview Science of Music, an online resource in the Accidental Scientist series
Memory exhibitionJukebox Memories, a component of the Memory exhibition the explored music, memory, emotion, and identity, included 40 years of top tunes

Franklin Institute
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
What Makes Music?, a traveling exhibition, included Pan Pipes (showing how length of resonating chamber affects pitch), a laser oscilloscope and spectrum analyzer, and an Ensoniq synthesizer that let visitors see their own voices, then compare the waveshapes to those of a flute, clarinet, or saxophone.

Museum of Fine Arts
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Hereings, a temporary exhibition, included Steve Peters sound benches.

Museum of Science
Boston, Massachusetts
Bird's World includes two relevant units:
How to identify birds—Computer stations where visitors learn how to identify New England species at rest, in flight, and by song; they can hear five voices (contact call, song, begging, male-to-male aggression, and alarms)
Crack the case—Computer game in which FBI agents play tapes of plotting turtle poachers against a background of natural sounds, and visitors crack the case by identifying bird calls and other animal sounds.
Contact: Maureen McConnell

Amsterdam, Netherlands
The Power of Music investigated variations in visitors' interpretations of video clips change accompanied by different musical scores.
Developer: Diana Issidorides

Science Museum of Minnesota
St. Paul, Minnesota
Waves on a String and other components of the Experiment Gallery invite visitors to experiment with the physics of sound. The museum also developed a device called a phonaudiograph, which is used as a component in the traveling exhibition Invention at Play.
Contact: J. Shipley Newlin

SoundbridgeSeattle Symphony
Seattle, Washington
Soundbridge Discovery Center

Virginia Discovery Museum
Charlottesville, Virginia
A temporary exhibition, Good Vibrations, which opened in May 2003, included a Juke Box of World Music—a global map coded to a computer that plays over a hundred different musical pieces, and a touch-screen computer that allows visitors to match photographs to music according to the mood the sounds convey. Also included was a model of the human ear showing how nerve hairs transform sound waves into electrical signals.
Contact: Sam Johnson

For information about the Music of Nature exhibition, contact

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