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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/April 1890/The Mysterious Music of Pascagoula

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 36‎ | April 1890


ANY one examining a map of the Mississippi coast will find indicated thereon, about one hundred miles east of New Orleans, the town of Scranton, or East Pascagoula, situated at the mouth of the Pascagoula River. The waters of this river have become famous in "song and story" for the strange sounds which they give forth as they slowly make their way to the Gulf. For forty years or more a great deal has been written in prose and verse about this mysterious music of Pascagoula, yet no one that I know of has ever attempted to give an accurate description or a plausible explanation of the phenomenon. In the following paper it is my purpose to describe the sounds as I have often heard them, and for an explanation of the mystery to give a theory, long since advanced by Darwin and Rev. Charles Kingsley, to explain the cause of similar music heard on the southern coast of France.

It was late one evening in September, 1875, that I first heard the mysterious music of Pascagoula. An old fisherman called me from the house where I then was, to come down on the river-bank and "hear the spirits singing under the water." Full of eager curiosity, I readily obeyed the summons, and, if what I heard can not be properly called music, it was certainly mysterious. From out of the waters of the river, apparently some forty feet from its shelving bank, rose a roaring, murmuring sound, which gradually increased in strength and volume, until it had reached its height, when it as slowly descended. It may be represented as follows:

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \time 4/4 \key ees \major \slurUp <aes' aes'>1(\<^\markup { \italic Diapason. } | q)\(_\markup { \halign #0.5 \italic \smaller Crescendo. } | q\)\!(\> | q)_\markup { \halign #0.5 \italic \smaller Dimineundo. } \bar "" s16\! \bar "|" }

It never advanced or receded, but seemed always in the same spot; and, though I remained there some time, it never ceased, but continued to rise and fall in the manner that I have indicated above. The reader may obtain a better idea of the music if he will place his ear against a telegraph-pole, the timber of which, acting as a sounding-board for the wires that are played upon by the wind, gives forth a strange, tremulous sound, that is an exact counterpart of the "music of Pascagoula"—with this difference, however, that whereas the music of the wires is very wavering and tremulous, that of the water rises and falls with a steady swell.

One evening in October, some years after the event above mentioned, while seated on an old wharf on the banks of the Pascagoula River, idly watching the ever varying and shifting hues of the setting sun, pointing with my finger across the wide extent of marsh that stretched before me to a squall that was raging in the Gulf, I remarked to my companion how distinctly we could hear the roar of the wind, though the storm was so far off. "That," she replied, "is not the storm that you hear, but the mysterious music." Approaching the edge of the wharf upon which we sat, and leaning over, I soon ascertained the truth of her words, for from out of the water came a roaring, rushing sound like that of a mighty wind, that may be represented thus:

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \time 2/4 \key ees \major \repeat tremolo 32 { <bes g>128 <bes' g'>_"Furioso." } \repeat tremolo 32 { <bes g>128 <bes' g'> } \repeat tremolo 32 { <bes g>128 <bes' g'> } }

The sound, however, was not caused by the wind passing between the wharf and the water, as there was very little breeze where we were, and, though I visited the spot some time afterward, it abated but little. I have been frequently told by fishermen that, when fishing at night on the waters of the Pascagoula, should they hear the mysterious music and make an unusual sound by splashing the water with an oar, or jumping overboard, the music will instantly cease, to begin again as soon as all is quiet.

A few days ago I was told, by a lady residing here, that one night this summer, while rowing upon the river, she heard the music. "As we approached the sound," she said, "it seemed to go away from us, but we continued to follow it even some distance up the bayou on the other side of the river, when, for fear of losing ourselves in the intricate windings of the bayou, we left it."

My friend, the late Rev. R. G. Hinsdale, of Biloxi, has told me that at that place there are three different kinds of this music heard, viz.: the first is like that I have described; the second is a quick, sharp note sounded at different intervals, like this:

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \time 5/4 \key ees \major r8 aes' r aes' r aes' r aes' r aes' | }

the third is another note repeated twice, as follows:

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \time 6/4 \autoBeamOff ais'8 ais' r ais' ais' r ais' ais' r ais' ais' r | }

As I have before hinted, I have no theory of my own to offer in explanation of the strange phenomenon known as the mysterious music of Pascagoula, but shall merely give the theory that was advanced by Darwin years ago. In his "Descent of Man," page 347 (revised edition), Darwin says, "The last point which need be noticed is that fishes are known to make various noises, some of which are described as being musical. Dr. Du-fossé, who has especially attended to this subject, says that the sounds are voluntarily produced in several ways by different fishes: by the friction of the pharyngeal bones; by the vibration of certain muscles attached to the swim-bladder, which serves as a resounding-board; and by the vibration of the intrinsic muscles of the swim-bladder. By this latter means the Trigla produces pure and long-drawn sounds which range over nearly an octave. But the most interesting case for us is that of two species of Ophidium, in which the males alone are provided with a sound-producing apparatus, consisting of small movable bones, with proper muscles, in connection with the swim-bladder. The drumming of the Umbrinas in the European seas is said to be audible from a depth of twenty fathoms, and the fishermen of Rochelle assert that 'the males alone make the noise during the spawning-time, and that it is possible, by imitating it, to take them without bait.'"

Whether or not these fishes inhabit or visit the waters of the Pascagoula, I am unable to say; but if Darwin's views are correct, and I have no doubt that they are, then we have a very probable explanation of the mysterious music; if not, then we are as much in the dark as ever.[1]


  1. [Prof G. Brown Goode, in his "American Fishes," mentions several species to which the name Drum has been given because of their ability to produce sounds. In his account of the Sea Drum he says: "Another historical incident is connected with Pogonias. The legend of Pascagoula and its mysterious music, deemed supernatural by the Indians, is still current. 'It may often be heard there on summer evenings,' says a recent writer. 'The listener being on the beach, or, yet more favorably, in a boat floating on the river, a low, plaintive sound is heard rising and falling like that of an Æolian harp, and seeming to issue from the water. The sounds, which are sweet and plaintive, but monotonous, cease as soon as there is any noise or disturbance of the water.' Bienville, the French explorer, heard the music of Pascagoula when he made his voyage in 1699 to the mouths of the Mississippi, and his experiences are recorded in his narrative." Speaking of the Lake Drum, Prof. Goode remarks: "These names, 'Croaker,' 'Drum,' 'Thunder-pumper,' etc., refer to the croaking or grunting noise made by this species in common with most Sciænoids. This noise is thought to be made in the air-bladder by forcing the air from one compartment to another." Editor.]