Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/October 1880/The Mysterious Sounds of Nature


THE author of an essay on "The Empire of Tones," which was published at Brunswick a few years ago, wrote: "The globe is played upon around its whole circuit by the billows of the mighty ocean; it is encompassed by the strata of the atmosphere ever moving in sound-waves; and is swept from pole to pole by a flood of the most diversified tones which have their origin in nature. Over the eternal snow-peaks of the mountains, where all life has long since been made stark by the cold, howl icy storms like the voice of a gigantic organ. In the deep bosom of the earth the miner hears the murmur of the subterranean waters, the whistling of the jets of escaping gases, and the monotonous trickling of the gathered dampness. The human race has heard the voices of creation for thousands of years, from its childhood; but how incompetent has science been till now to explain the origin and meaning of these innumerable sounds!" A notice of some of the most remarkable of the sounds which are produced by the acoustic forces of nature will be of interest.

It should be borne in mind that waves of sound produced by a single impulse have the property of putting other waves in motion, so as to prolong the effect and produce a tone from the combination of the wave-movements. From this we may understand how resonances may be caused and harmonies may be heard in nature, the real origin of which may not be perceived by the common observer, or even by the learned investigator. Of such are the mysterious noises heard in the woods of Ceylon, on the banks of the Orinoco, and on the peninsula of Sinai. The rustle of the woods, the roll of the thunder, the crash of the storm, the murmur of the waterfall—all those sounds of the earth and the air of which the poets are so fond, and in which the ancients recognized the prophetic voices of the gods—sober science seeks to trace back to the same law whose operation is perceived when the bullet whizzes through the air, when the wind whistles through the crack of the door or window, when the burning wood snaps in the fireplace, when the stove-door crackles in cooling, when the teakettle sings that the water is boiling. Most of these sounds, which are produced by quickly succeeding impulses, approach in some degree to being musical tones. Water, in particular, has the property of giving forth sounds of this character, which vary in quality from the dull moaning of the waves to the charming warble of the gurgling brook and the pattering of the cascade. The great drops of the shower produce their melodies also, which in the cave of Staffa make a genuine water-music.

Among the natural sounds of obscure origin with which mythology and science have been occupied are the rustlings and so-called voices which seem to come from the air, sometimes from the bosom of the earth, and which have been remarked upon in all ages. Autenrieth refers them to the same class as the noises like thunder or the firing of cannon, which the hearers often fail to trace to an apparent cause. Sometimes they seem like the trampling of horses, or the roll of drums, or the clangor of trumpets; at other times, like human voices. In the last case, the sounds are those which are common to all men, and may be interpreted by each hearer as in his own language. To the Romans they spoke Latin, to the Greeks Greek, to the Scotch Highlanders Gaelic. History has notices of these sounds; the Bible descriptions attribute to them a religious significance. They are referred to when it is related that Samuel heard the voice of Jehovah three times in the temple; when Habakkuk, pronouncing the curse on Babylon, spoke of the stones crying out in the walls; when the glad voices of the mountains and waves are mentioned in the Psalms; in the account in John of the voice that cried out from heaven when Jesus went into Jerusalem, and the people wondered whether it was thunder or an angel; in the story of the conversion of St. Paul; and in the account of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. The profane history of antiquity also tells of voices from above, and ascribes to them a supernatural significance and an influence over the hearts of men. Instances in point are the sounds of battle, and the clash of arms, and the neighing of horses, heard by night, according to Pausanias, on the field of Marathon; the address of the god Pan to the Athenian ambassadors to Sparta, told of by Herodotus; and the voices heard by both armies after the battle of the Romans with the sons of Tarquin. The Germans have myths of the din made by the war-god and his marching hosts, of the wild huntsmen, of strange cries and of the barking of dogs heard in the air; and the French have stories not unlike them.

Accounts have been given in more recent times of air-noises of another kind, or "devil's music," which have been heard in the East, in Europe, and in America, and of which discussions may be found in the acoustic letters of Richard Pohl and in the "Musical Conversations Lexicon" of Gathy. The devil's voice in Ceylon is heard in clear nights on the hills and among the valleys in different places, passing quickly from one spot to another, sometimes resembling the barking of a dog, sometimes a mournful human voice, and has been described by several travelers, English, Dutch, and German. Autenrieth, Richard Pohl, Schubert, and others have endeavored to trace it to natural causes, but Schleiden gives up a satisfactory explanation of it. Persian traditions tell of a similar phenomenon, the cry of the Gule which is heard in the mountain-region of that country, together with the noises of the ringing of metals, the sound of drums, and the trampling of horses. The traveler Marco Polo, in the thirteenth century, told of noises of weapons and horsemen, the voices of men and musical harmonies which were heard frequently in the desert of Lob; and his contemporary, the monk Rubriquis, described the regions north of the Altai Mountains as the scene of similar manifestations. The devil's voice in Ceylon has been ascribed to the effects of excessive heat; these sounds of the more northern regions are possibly due to the dryness of the climate. The region of Mount Sinai is rich in curious harmonious sounds.

Unaccounted-for sounds have been accompanied in some of the hotter parts of Africa by a light, which may indicate an electrical origin; this has been noticed by several observers on a mountain near Cape Town. A manifestation, which may be called a sound mirage, was described in the "Magasin Pittoresque" in 1852 by an English writer, who related that while traveling in the desert at a time when the atmosphere was clear, and the heat glowing, and everything was quiet, he heard for about ten minutes a joyous sound like the ringing of church-bells. He suggested that the organs of hearing might have been set in vibration through the extreme dryness of the air. (Kinglake, in "Eöthen," relates a similar incident, if this is not the same.) The missionary Cabruta heard on the Orinoco a sound like the reverberations of cannon coming alternately from opposite directions, to which no one could assign an origin; and Humboldt says that the Indians of the same regions tell of the sound of the holy trumpets blown by the Great Spirit.

Similar phenomena have been noticed at different places in Europe, and people remote from each other have alike referred them to a supernatural origin. Among them were the sounds in the air heard by a priest at Aufacq, near Beauvais, of which an account is given in a manuscript of the last century, and the noise of the Arlecan which was heard in a churchyard near Aries. The Slavic peoples on the Adriatic and the Scandinavians of the North are equally inclined to believe in such manifestations and to notice them. The mirage of the Fata Morgana is sometimes accompanied with a sound like thunder. The Scottish Highlanders hear a mournful sound in the clefts of the rocks which they ascribe to an evil spirit. Arndt tells of soft tones and cries emanating from the mountains of the Orkney and Shetland Islands. Distinct cracking sounds are heard on the Adriatic Sea.

Echoes are frequently mentioned that repeat the sound six or seven times. Such an echo is said by Pliny to have been at a portico in Olympia; another echo, described by Gassendi, near the grave of Metella, repeated a verse of the "Æneid" eight times. Addison heard in Italy a pistol-shot echoed fifteen times. An echo in the county of Argyll repeats the sound eight times after equal pauses, but with diminishing force. These phenomena are favored by the neighborhood of rocks, caves, and bodies of water. Pierre de Castellane, a French officer who served in Algiers, relates that he heard an echo repeated a thousand times on the mountain-road to Bel-Abbes; it seemed to pass from one mountain to another, and to resound from side to side. Admiral Wrangell, in his work on Siberia, tells of an echo at Teheki, near Kirensk, on the Lena, where a pistol-shot is repeated more than a hundred times among the high rocks, and seems like a volley of musketry, but of the force of a cannon-shot.

Partly of the nature of the echo are the peculiar tones which are produced by the wind or the sea in rocky places. The learned Jesuit Kircher describes several such phenomena as sounding like the twanging of the harp, like an organ, or like bells. They have been noticed in Tartary, in Sweden, on the banks of the Guatemala Lake, and at a waterfall in the province of Kiang-si, China. Pausanias speaks of the tuneful waves of the Ægean Sea; Professor Bruder has perceived the chord of the third of C sharp in them. The experiments of the brothers Heim have made it probable that the resonant property resides in some quality of the waters; and Oersted has discussed the subject of the "Harmony of Waterfalls" in his work on the "Spirit of Nature."

The agency of echoes is also observed in the music of grottoes. A fearful sound has been said to be emitted from the grotto of Smaland near Wibourg, in Finland, as if a living animal were imprisoned there. Similar sounds are attributed to grottoes in Switzerland and the island of Hispaniola. A cave near Barable in Hungary gives out a noise like that of a pistol-shot. Harmonious, soothing tones prevail in other caves, as in Fingal's Cave, Staffa, where the falling water-drops, the breezes, and the rolling waves striking upon the basaltic columns, combine to make it a real cave of melodies. The accord of tones in this cave is no doubt attributable in a great degree to the symmetry of its shape, and the regularity of the form and arrangement of the basaltic columns. Other musical sounds proceed from the bosom of a rock called the Piedra de Carichana Vieja, on the banks of the Orinoco; they begin at sunrise, and are attributed to the action of changes of temperature. The musical sounds which are heard on the heights between Mount Sinai and the Gulf of Suez, the bell-tones of the Djebal Nakus rock in the Red Sea, and the noises like thunder in the region of Sinai which are mentioned by Burckhardt, are caused by the rolling of the sands among the rocks.

The sonorous property of rocks is also manifested in the phonoliths or ringing stones, of which several remarkable ones are known. The embassy of the East India Company to China found a rock near the city of Taucham, which gave out a noise like the sound of a trumpet whenever it was rubbed with the finger. Such stones are not uncommon in the department of the Loire, in France; and the basin of a fountain in the court of the Institute of France, in Paris, was observed by Elwart to give the chord of F sharp when struck by the hand.

Plants also afford their peculiar sounds and music. Of this nature were the oracular voices of the oaks at Dordona, a rustling of the trees around the temple of Zeus, which, with the accompanying murmur of the sacred fountain, was held to be prophetic. The rustling of the trees was regarded by the Scandinavians and the Celts as a language of nature, full of significance, of which the Druids were the consecrated interpreters. Possibly the woods, which the priests regarded as holy, had the property of producing real harmonies, like those of the Æolian harp. Such harmonious woods and musical trees are mentioned in many traditions of the olden time and reports of later times. Some soldiers, encamped in a valley in the Black Forest toward the end of the seventeenth century, heard charming sounds in the tops of the fir-trees, accompanied by the rustling of the wind as it blew through the narrow valley. A tradition of a similar music in a wood near Cithas, in the department of the Haute Saône, France, is confirmed by the testimony of an ear-witness, Désiré Monnier, author of "Traditions populaires comparées." The filao, a tree of the island of Bourbon, emits soft, melancholy tones when its slender boughs are shaken by the wind. An avenue of such trees is the source of wonderfully touching harmonies. The reeds and rushes of the island of Sylt, with their supple stems and interlaced roots, give forth, whenever the lightest wind is blowing, tones which are at times like whispers, like a subdued singing, or like a loud whistle. The wind, which in this case causes the root-fibers to be rubbed together and turns the limber stalks upon themselves, exerts a similar action on the innumerable thistles of the Hungarian steppes, where, as on the battle-field of Kapolna, mournful sounds, mingled with the soft soughing of the wind, are heard on still nights. The poets of all ages have sung of these sounds of nature; the literature of all nations abounds in fables and myths concerning them; they possibly suggested the first attempts to make musical instruments; and they have suggested to the great musical composers themes for many of the striking passages of their most successful works.—Die Natur.