The Songs of Insects

Much of nature is inaccessible to humans, either too big or too small for us to comprehend. Yet there is plenty that we see and hear but choose to ignore, even as it buzzes around our ears. Think of the thrumming music of summer insects, so emblematic of warm, sticky evenings. We hear it every year and usually have no idea at all what we’re listening to.

That is about to change. There has never before been an accessible guide to the songs of insects, but Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger have produced a book impossible to resist. It has the most loving and detailed photographs of crickets, grasshoppers, and katydids that have ever been printed. There are easily readable notations (sound spectograms) for the different insect songs. And there is a compact disk with seventy-five tracks clearly identifying each incredible creature.

Now at last you may gaze on the delicate snowy tree cricket, a bug easy to hear but nearly impossible to see. Its transparent wings look like hand-inscribed crystal. And there are more wonderful names! The confused ground cricket, the gladiator meadow katydid, and, my favorite, the slightly musical conehead — which, by the way, is not recommended for keeping as a pet because its loud, harsh songs may drown out all the other sounds in your home insect orchestra.

I learned that the cicada ohmmmming outside my window is called Linne’s cicada; its high, pulsating song “begins softly but quickly increases in volume, then becomes a steady pulsating rattle sounding like a saltshaker before ending abruptly.” Not to be confused with the scissor-grinder cicada, which is “loud and buzzy with slow and pronounced pulsations at a rate of 1–2 per second.” Or the lyric cicada, the only one with no pulsing quality at all.

Listening well, in the end, may be forgetting the name of the thing one hears, and instead focusing so deeply on it that its music inhabits your very being. This book will draw you in to a backyard world you barely knew existed. With extraordinary photographs and brilliantly recorded sound, it is surely the best bug book ever.

David Rothenberg has written and performed on the relationship between humanity and nature for many years.  He is the author of Why Birds Sing, on making music with birds, also published in England, Italy, Spain, Taiwan, China, Korea, and Germany. It was turned into a feature length BBC TV documentary.  His following book, Thousand Mile Song, is on making music with whales.  It was turned into a film for French television. As a composer and jazz clarinetist, Rothenberg has eleven CDs out under his own name, including On the Cliffs of the Heart, named one of the top ten CDs by JazzizMagazine in 1995 and a record on ECM with Marilyn Crispell, One Dark Night I Left My Silent House.  His latest book on insects and music, along with a companion CD, was published in April 2013 by St. Martins Press under the title Bug Music.  It has been covered in the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, on PBS News Hour and on Radiolab.