Category Archives: Nature

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, visual artist

When Mendelssohn Bartholdy was 13 a family trip to Switzerland afforded his first opportunity to devote himself to drawing; subsequently a sketch book was always an indispensable part of his holiday luggage.

Soon the prodigy’s musical career precluded other artistic activities, but after the death of his beloved sister Fanny when he was 38 he returned to Switzerland and completed a remarkable series of watercolors. These were among his final creative activities; he died in November of that year.

This according to the preface by Margaret Crum for Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 1972), which reproduces items from the Bodleian Library’s collection.

Above, Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s depiction of Lucerne in July 1847; below, Piero Bellugi conducts the final movements of his sixth string symphony, written around the time he first started drawing.

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Filed under Curiosities, Nature, Romantic era, Visual art

Insects in rock and roll cover art

Insects in rock ’n’ roll cover art is an article by Joseph R. Coelho, who teaches in the Biology Program at Quincy University.

The article, which can be read online here, was published in American entomologist (L/3 [fall 2004] pp. 142–151). It  is part of a larger project called Insects in rock ’n’ roll music, which also includes lists of insect-related songs, albums, and artist names.

Above, a classic Iron Butterfly album cover. Below, ants dancing to Ant man bee from the legendary Trout mask replica by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.

Many thanks to the Improbable Research blog for alerting us about Professor Coelho’s work!

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Filed under Animals, Nature, Popular music, Resources, Science, Visual art

Flute or food?

In 1996 Mira Omerzel-Terlep reported that a bone fragment excavated at the Divje Babe I cave site in Slovenia is considered to be the oldest man-made flute, dating from 45,000 years ago (“Koščene piščali: Pričetek slovenske, evropske in svetovne inštrumentalne glasbene zgodovine” [Bone whistles: Origins of the Slovenian, European, and world history of instrumental music], Etnolog: Glasnik Slovenskega Etnografskega Muzeja/Bulletin of the Slovene Ethnographic Museum VI, pp. 235–294). Further studies sought to demonstrate that the fragment had originally belonged to an instrument capable of producing a diatonic scale.

Other researchers were skeptical, though, and in 1998 Paola Villa et al. tried to put the speculation to rest, showing that the holes in the bone were the results of gnawing by animals (“A Middle Paleolithic origin of music? Using cave-bear bone accumulations to assess the Divje Babe I bone ‘flute’”, Antiquity LXXII/275 [March], pp. 65–79).

The argument has not abated. In 2002 a pair of essays staking out the opposing camps was issued in Archäologie früher Klangerzeugung und Tonordnung/The archaeology of sound origin and organization; Musikarchäologie in der Ägäis und Anatolien/Music archaeology in the Aegean and Anatolia (Rahden: Leidorf); April Nowell states that the results of taphonomic testing offered no viable proof that the bone fragment was an instrument (“Is a cave bear bone from Divje Babe, Slovenia, a Neanderthal flute?” pp. 69–81) while Robert Fink presents research supports the theory that it was (“The Neanderthal flute and origin of the scale: Fang or flint? A response” pp. 83–87).

More recently, an exhaustive study by Cajus G. Diedrich of Paleo-Logic, Independent Institute of Geosciences, ends with the conclusion that “The ‘cave bear cub femora with holes’ are, in all cases, neither instruments nor human made at all” (Royal Society Open Science, 2 : 140022; the paper can be read in full here).

Still, the controversy is alive and thriving on the Internet.

Below, Ljuben Dimkaroski performs on a reconstruction of the alleged original bone flute.

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Filed under Animals, Instruments, Nature, Science

Waiting for qi

Houqi (waiting for qi) was a technique employed by Chinese authorities in the fourteenth century to determine the onset of spring by measuring the emanations of qi, the active principal of life. A set of standard pitchpipes, each corresponding to a specific calendar period, was filled with ashes and buried in a sealed chamber; when the sun entered the second two-week period of a given month the seminal force of qi was supposed to rise and expel the ashes from the pipe that matched the calendar period.

Unfortunately, the method failed to produce the desired results, and a great deal of discussion over the millennia as to what kind of soil to use, where to place the pitchpipes, and so on, failed to improve it. Ultimately the great music theorist Zhu Zaiyu (朱載堉, 1536–1611) criticized houqi as a poor example of scientific method.

This according to “Origins of the controversy over the houqi method (候气法疑案之发端)” by Tang Jikai (唐继凯) in Jiaoxiang: Journal of Xi’an Conservatory of Music (交响:西安音乐学院学报), vol. 22, no. 3:101 (fall 2003), pp. 27–31. Above, a calligrapher’s rendition of the Chinese character for qi.

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Filed under Asia, Curiosities, Instruments, Nature, Science

Baroque birdsong

Along with its wide-ranging discussions of theoretical topics, the 1650 treatise Musurgia universalis by the German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) includes what may be the first transcriptions of bird songs.

The illustration gives the nightingale’s song followed by those of the chicken, the cuckoo, the quail, and the parrot; the latter says χαίρε (“hello”). Vox cuculi is notated as the familiar falling minor third heard in cuckoo clocks (see below).

A facsimile edition of the treatise has been issued by Georg Olms (Hildesheim, 1970; reprinted 2006).

Related article: Athanasias Kircher’s global reach


Filed under Animals, Baroque era, Musicologists, Nature, Notation, Science, Visual art

Mozart effect redux


“Spatial performance as a function of early music exposure in rats” (Third triennial ESCOM conference: Proceedings [Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet, 1997], pp. 688–694) reports on an experiment in which 90 rats were randomly assigned to one of three groups: The Mozart group (30 rats) was exposed to a Mozart piano sonata 12 hours a day for 21 days in utero and 60 days after birth. The Glass and White Noise groups were similarly exposed to the music of Philip Glass or to white noise. The rats’ spatial performance in a 12-unit T maze was then assessed; the Mozart-bred animals ran significantly faster and made significantly fewer errors than the Glass-bred or white noise-bred animals.

In “Do rats show a Mozart effect?” (Music perception: An interdisciplinary journal 21/2 [2003], pp. 251–265), Kenneth M. Steele points out that the in utero exposure would have been ineffective because rats are born deaf. Further, a comparison of human and rat audiograms in the context of the frequencies produced by a piano suggests that adult rats are deaf to most of the pitches in the sonata.

“Spatial performance as a function of early music exposure in rats” (Third triennial ESCOM conference: Proceedings [Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet, 1997], pp. 688–694) reports on an experiment in which 90 rats were randomly assigned to one of three groups: The Mozart group (30 rats) was exposed to a Mozart sonata for 12 hours a day—21 days in utero and 60 days after birth. The Glass and White Noise groups were similarly exposed to the music of Philip Glass or to white noise. The rats’ spatial performance in a 12-unit T maze was then assessed, and the Mozart-bred animals ran significantly faster and made significantly fewer errors than the Glass-bred or white noise-bred animals.



Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Animals, Classic era, Curiosities, Nature, Reception, Science

Bees at the Opéra


Besides his training as a graphic artist, Jean Paucton, the prop man at the Palais Garnier in Paris, studied beekeeping at the Jardin du Luxemboug. In the mid-1980s he ordered his first hive, which was delivered to him at the Opéra, sealed and full of bees. He had intended to take it to his country house north of Paris, but when his plans changed the building’s fireman—who had been raising trout in a huge firefighting cistern under the building—advised him to place them on the seventh-floor roof at the back of the Palais Garnier.

Paucton gradually increased the number of hives to five, and from approximately 75,000 bees he annually collects about 1000 pounds of honey, which he packages in tiny jars, each with the label “Miel récolté sur les toits de l’Opéra de Paris, Jean Paucton”.

Thanks to the concentration of fragrant flowering trees and shrubs at the Bois de Boulogne, the chestnut trees in the Champs Élysées, and the linden trees in the Palais Royal, his honey has an intense floral flavor; it is sold at the Opéra’s gift shop and at the Paris gourmet shop Fauchon.

This according to “Who’s humming at Opera? Believe it or not, bees” by Craig S. Smith (The New York times 152/52,526 [26 June 2003] p. A:4).

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Filed under Animals, Architecture, Curiosities, Dramatic arts, Food, Nature, Science

Horror studies


Launched by Intellect in 2010, Horror studies (ISSN 2040-3275) is an interdisciplinary journal devoted to research on cultural manifestations of horror, including the familiar forms it assumes in literature and film as well as its expressions in fashion, dance, fine art, music, and technology. The journal’s editors write that it “aims to extend both the formal study and the informal appreciation of horror into hitherto overlooked critical terrains, seeking in the process to appeal not only to the international academic community, but also to enthusiasts of the horror mode more generally.”

The inaugural issue of Horror studies includes “Of submarines and sharks: Musical settings of a silent menace” by Linda Maria Koldau, an essay that explores how film composers have depicted the primal fear of the silent monster stealthily approaching from the depths.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Animals, Curiosities, Nature, New periodicals

Cowshed soundscaping

Cows respond strongly to changes in the muted, subliminal strata of the cowshed soundscape; the elimination of such sounds, or their masking through music and other designed sound foregrounds, causes pronounced disturbances in the animals’ physiology and behavior.

A positive soundscaping for cowsheds must take advantage of the subjective implications of sounds such as the first moo of a newborn calf, which carries the strongest psychological impact even if it cannot be described as aesthetically beautiful.

This according to “The blessed noise and little moo: Aspects of soundscape in cowsheds” by Maru Pöyskö, an essay included in Soundscapes: Essays on vroom and moo (Tampere: Tampereen Yliopisto, Kansanperinteen Laitos, 1994). Below, a newborn calf demonstrates the little moo.

Related article: Radio for cows


Filed under Acoustics, Animals, Curiosities, Nature, Science

Mozart's flyswatter

Franz Niemetschek’s legendary report that La clemenza di Tito was composed in 18 days was not seriously challenged until 1960, when Tomislav Volek published important archival materials relating to the chronology of the opera’s composition. Physical evidence from the autograph manuscript, including the remains of a fly squashed on the paper (probably by the composer in the heat of August), contributes to discrediting the hypothesis that Mozart’s work had begun before he signed his July 1791 contract for the opera.

This according to “The chronology of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito reconsidered” by Sergio Durante (Music & letters, 80, no. 4 (Nov 1999): 560–594), where the evidence is described thus:

“On folio 114 of the autograph . . . a thick black spot in the shape of a cross is found. . . . On direct and close examination, the centre of the spot proves to host the remains of a fly (a kind of evidence not often found in music sources!). After a long reflection, my best guess is that the fly was smashed under the loose bifolium at the very time of composition, after it had unduly annoyed Mozart at work; he also provided a witty ‘service’ to the insect by marking a cross over it (‘requiescat’!); in any case, such was the force and determination of the action, combined with the gluing action of the ink, that the corpse is still stuck on the page after two hundred years of musicological investigations.” (p. 574)

More articles about Mozart are here.


Filed under Animals, Baroque era, Curiosities, Nature, Science, Source studies