Hearing Place in Music

By: Travis D. Stimeling (West Virginia University) //

In his book Space and Place: The Perspective of Experiences, cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan defines place as “centers of felt value where biological needs, such as those for food, water, rest, and procreation, are satisfied.”1 It is in place, most cultural geographers argue, that we make meaning of the world around us, using our senses to respond to the environments in which we find ourselves.2 For instance, distant memories can be recalled through the smell of a spring rain. The sight of far-off mountains can feel simultaneously comforting and claustrophobic. So, too, do we construct senses of place through our auditory experiences. As Canadian composer and acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer describes in his landmark book The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, “hearing is a way of touching at a distance and the intimacy of the first sense is fused with sociability whenever people gather together to hear something special.”3 When we hear familiar popular songs from our childhoods, then, we might think of the people who filled our youthful spaces and feel a surge of (potentially inexplicable) emotions in response. The sounds of seagulls might take us back to a relaxing coastal vacation, perhaps even conjuring the faint smell of the ocean breeze or the taste of food from a favorite beachside bistro. If “the sounds of place,” to borrow a term coined by musicologist Denise Van Glahn, are so important to the ways we understand the world, how, then, might musicians—people who are, to a great extent, significantly engaged with sound—respond to the particular places in which they make their lives?4 Or, even more generally, how might musicians encourage us to conjure the natural world through their compositional and performative choices?

Composers of art music frequently work to incorporate sounds from the natural environment into their creations. For example, Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (completed 1720, published 1725)—a perennial favorite on classical radio stations and “greatest hits of classical music” compilations—uses eighteenth-century concerto conventions to explore the sensations and mythologies associated with each of the four seasons experienced in temperate climates. Vivaldi uses the stark contrasts of texture and dynamics that are typically associated with the eighteenth-century concerto—as well as a set of accompanying sonnets—to offer a vivid and long-lasting portrait of the ways that people experience the seasons. In the well-known first movement, for instance, we hear the reawakening of the spring birds in a virtuosic display by two violin soloists, who play a duet that mimics the playful flight of the emergent aviary life.

Violinist Julia Fischer and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields perform La primavera (“Spring”) from Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons at the National Botanical Garden of Wales.

Bird song also plays a significant role in the works of other composers of art music, including Ludwig van Beethoven, who includes the songs of a nightingale (flute), a quail (oboe), and a cuckoo (clarinets) in the second movement of his Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68, also known as the “Pastoral” symphony. In attempting to capture the sounds of rural life, Beethoven also offers programmatic representations of babbling brooks, powerful thunderstorms, and the rural people who live off the fat of the land. Although the “Pastoral” symphony might evoke a general sense of a rural area, it is also likely that Beethoven was inspired by his many rambles through the rural and semi-rural landscapes around Vienna. As Beethoven biographer Lewis Lockwood has remarked, “That he loved the countryside and relished taking excursions into the woods and fields is clear from biographical evidence of all kinds. That he now seized on the great tradition of the musical ‘pastoral,’ with its complex connections to the pastoral tradition in literature, implies a conjoining of his personal experience with familiar and traditional modes of representing the pastoral in music.”5

The second movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F, op. 68 (“Pastoral”) is evocatively titled “Scene by the Brook” and uses the instruments of the orchestra to evoke the sounds of a peaceful afternoon by a rural stream.

Similarly, twentieth-century French composer Olivier Messiaen transcribed recordings of various North American birdsongs and included them in his work Oiseaux exotiques (1955-56), not only imitating, but directly quoting the sounds of the natural environment.

Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques includes natural sounds through transcriptions and orchestrations of birdsongs.

In music with texts, including many popular and vernacular songs, musicians can make use of specific references to places to give their audiences a multisensory understanding of a place. For instance, the opening cut of Little Joe y La Familia’s 1972 conjunto album Para la Gente“Las Nubes” (“The Clouds”)—describes a man who longs to escape the unrewarding life of an urban migrant for the beautiful clouds of his Texas home. Such imagery is also evident in folksinger Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train,” a song that recalls the many trains that passed through Carrboro, NC, a textile mill community that thrived in the first decades of the twentieth century. In addition to the lyrics, which describe the wanderlust that many songwriters seem to feel when they hear the whistle of a passing train, Cotten’s persistent finger-picking on the bass strings of the guitar (turned upside-down to accommodate left-handed playing) also recalls the rhythmic pulsing of the train’s wheels on the railroad tracks throughout the industrialized U.S. Piedmont South.

Popular musicians also use the compositional possibilities that the recording studio affords to evoke a musical landscape. In their self-titled 2008 album, for instance, Fleet Foxes released the song “Blue Ridge Mountains,” the title of which refers to a range of the Appalachian Mountains that extends from Pennsylvania to Georgia. The song’s lyrics make explicit reference to someone missing a flight “to the Blue Ridge Mountains, over near Tennessee” and visiting a “quivering forest,” likely a poetic description of the wind-swept trees that top the Blue Ridge’s highest peaks. The lyrics, penned by songwriter Robin Pecknold, are couched in a musical setting that begins by evoking the hazy atmosphere visible from the overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Later, the group uses a tinny-sounding piano to create countermelody that draws upon the sounds of the hammered dulcimer, an iconic Appalachian instrument. Taken together, then, Fleet Foxes “Blue Ridge Mountains” implicitly and explicitly draws listeners into the stunning vistas and rich cultural heritage of southern Appalachia.

IMG_0347 (1)

The Blue Ridge Mountains stretch from Pennsylvania to Georgia and include the highest peaks east of the Mississippi River. They have also been rich incubators of traditional music in the United States. (Photo courtesy of the author).

Musicians frequently use their compositions to situate their listeners within the environments that are significant to them. Whether natural or human, these environments are often heard in specific musical and textual choices, including instrumentation, rhythm and meter, harmonies, and melodies, as well as lyric references. Moreover, listeners often seek such references as a way to reach a more complex understanding of the landscapes in which they and their favorite musicians live and work. Although a great deal of music is composed and performed without specific reference to place, music does have the remarkable power of transporting us to places both familiar and exotic.

For Discussion

  1. Spend an hour in any particular environment, making sure to bring along something to take notes. Listen carefully to that environment, making note of the various natural, mechanical, and human sounds that you hear. Then, over the next day or two, reflect on what those sounds might tell you about the ways that people use and invest meaning in that environment.
  2. Select a musical composition that makes explicit reference to a place in its title or lyrics. Using your favorite search engine, look up photographs, soundscape recordings, and local culture websites related to that place. How well does the musical representation of this place correspond with what you have learned about it?

1 Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, 5th edition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 4.

2 Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974), 5-12.

3 R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (New York: Knopf, 1977), 11.

4 Denise Van Glahn, The Sounds of Place: Music and the American Cultural Landscape (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2009).

5 Lewis Lockwood, Beethoven: The Music and the Life (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003), 225. 

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