As Published in Parent Express, August 2011

Music From A Minor Nation

         Each summer I attend a performance by a trio of very talented percussionists. The pieces they played, while not melodic, were thrilling to listen to, and the variety of sounds dazzled. I recall that concert as August arrives, for August marks a transition in our natural soundscape; as summer progresses the vocal music of the birds fades, and the buzzes, chirps and rattles of the insects begin their crescendo. While not melodic, these sounds are a part of the essence of the days and nights of mature summer.

 

Most of these noisy insects include crickets, katydids, and grasshoppers. They create their sounds through “stridulation,” the rubbing of a hard scraper over a ridged surface. In katydids and crickets, the scraper is located on the lower inside edge of one wing, and the bar of ridges is located on the inside edge of the opposite wing. The insects raise their wings and vibrate the scraper across the ridges to make sound. Some of our local grasshoppers also make sounds. They do so by rubbing ridges on their hind legs against their forewings.

 

Another noisemaker, the cicada emits buzzes using membranes that cover resonating chambers in their abdomens. The sound of these “ drums” is created when abdominal muscles pop the membranes outward.

 

Unlike the early summer morning when the air is full of bird song, dawn is the quietest time of day during the insect season. Perhaps this is to be expected from percussionists. Grasshoppers and cicadas usually prefer daylight for their concerts, while katydids and some of the crickets make their music after dark, with the most noise generated in the few hours after dusk.

 

Sounds to listen for include:

~ the familiar trilling chirps from the ground that is made by field crickets

~ the raspy, argumentative voices of the katydids arguing about whether or not katy did something. “Katy-did.” “Katy-did-nt.” “Katy-did …” They will be loudest on warm nights

~ a constant steady chirping from up in the trees by the snowy tree crickets

 

The snowy tree cricket is the cricket that can be used to tell the temperature. Count the chirps for 13 seconds, add 40, and the number you get will approximate the temperature in Fahrenheit.

 

A terrific book, for the whole family,  that will make the performance even more interesting—The Songs of Insects, by Lang Elliot and Wil Hershberger (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007) has beautiful close-up photographs, descriptions, sonograms and range maps for 77 common and widespread musical insects east of the Great Plains. Best of all, it comes with a compact disc of their songs. Their website (google “ songs of insects”) groups the sounds that might be confusing so you can hear them consecutively, has an introduction to twenty common insect songs, and photo and audio galleries.

 

The following excerpt from Emily Dickenson’ s poem, “ My Cricket” is found in the book’ s introduction:

 

Farther in summer

Than the birds

Pathetic from the grass

A minor nation celebrates

Its unobtrusive mass

 

And so, with the commencement of August, join me with your insect net, you recordings, your book, and your ears. And while you’re looking and listening for crickets and katydids, don’t forget to indulge in the age-old late summer past time of lying in the grass and watching the activities of the busy insect metropolis at ground level. After all, it is for the sake of science and nature, of course.