“Haters are like crickets; they make a lot of noise you can hear but you never see them, then you walk right by them and they’re quiet.” –Unknown
The sound of crickets adds an unavoidable hum to the evenings and nights in many places throughout the world, a familiar sound — I’m sure — to a great many of you.
Each male cricket has a large, serrated (sawtooth) vein running along the bottom of each wing, and by rubbing the top of one wing against the bottom of the other, while simultaneously holding the wings up-and-open, the wing membranes vibrate, and create that familiar chirping sound. (It is a popular but persistent myth that crickets make that sound by rubbing their legs together.)
There are also four different types of calls that crickets emit, dependent upon whether the male is calling for a mate, courting a nearby female, acting aggressively towards another male, or whether they’ve just completed a successful mating. Additionally, the frequency of cricket chirps varies tremendously based on the ambient temperature. (The latter being a function of a cold-blooded creature — as all insects are — becoming more active in higher temperatures.)
But these high-pitched calls are designed for cricket ears (or, well, legs, apparently), not for human ears. Did you ever wonder what a cricket’s call would sound like slowed down? There are lots of different ways to do it, with a variety of interesting results.
First, I’d like to play for you the sound of a small cricket house, slowed down by progressively larger amounts, for about 17 seconds.
That’s a complex sound, right there, and that’s just representative of one of the four types of cricket chirps in one species of cricket at a particular temperature.
You’ll notice that this is a very different kind of cricket chirp/song than, say, the type below (via here), slowed down by a factor of 2, 4, and then 8, and then played again at normal speed.
There are some more interesting things that have been done with cricket chirps by playing with their speed and pitch (see this Smithsonian site).
But by far the most remarkable came to my attention via a Tom Waits interview, where the following exchange took place:
Q: Most interesting recording you own?
A: It’s a mysteriously beautiful recording from, I am told, Robbie Robertson’s label. It’s of crickets. That’s right, crickets. The first time I heard it… I swore I was listening to the Vienna Boys Choir, or the Mormon Tabernacle choir. It has a four-part harmony. It is a swaying choral panorama. Then a voice comes in on the tape and says, “What you are listening to is the sound of crickets. The only thing that has been manipulated is that they slowed down the tape.” No effects have been added of any kind, except that they changed the speed of the tape. The sound is so haunting. I played it for Charlie Musselwhite, and he looked at me as if I pulled a Leprechaun out of my pocket.
I looked hard to find what Tom Waits was talking about, and it turns out that there was a 1992 release of a song called Ballad of the Twisted Hair, off of the album Medicine Songs by David Carson & the Little Wolf Band, produced by Jim Wilson. It was later misattributed to Robert Wilson and has just gone a bit viral; you can listen to the amazing sounds here right now!
Allegedly, this is just a two-track recording of crickets: one at normal speed, and one slowed-down, with the pitch also dropped.
It sounds amazing and beautiful, like a heavenly choir of opera singers. But is this merely a recording of crickets? As much as you’d like to believe that nature is exactly this beautiful to our own ears, that’s not quite the case. Here’s what really happened, as told by opera singer Bonnie Jo Hunt:
I had these messages saying that Robbie Robertson said to get in touch with me. So we went in studio. He said, `I want you to do whatever you feel like. And, now, these are crickets.’ So I thought, oh, my goodness. I’m to accompany crickets, see?
And when I heard them, I was so ashamed of myself, I was so humbled, because I had not given them enough respect. Jim Wilson recorded crickets in his back yard, and he brought it into the studio and went ahead and lowered the pitch and lowered the pitch and lowered the pitch. And they sound exactly like a well-trained church choir to me. And not only that, but it sounded to me like they were singing in the eight-tone scale. And so what–they started low, and then there was something like I would call, in musical terms, an interlude; and then another chorus part; and then an interval and another chorus. They kept going higher and higher.
They were saying cricket words. I kept thinking, `Oh, I almost can understand them. It’s a nice, mellow tone. And they never went off pitch until one of the interludes, where they went real crazy and they got back on again to where they were. And I know that people do not know that they’re listening to crickets unless they’re told that that’s what that is.
So yes, you are listening to two cricket tracks: crickets at normal speed (in Jim Wilson’s backyard), crickets slowed down with the pitch dropped (by Wilson and possibly Robbie Robertson), but it’s also accompanied by Bonnie Jo Hunt‘s beautiful, human singing. Still beautiful, still fascinating, but not just crickets alone!
And that’s an amazing sound that deserves to go viral, but please be aware that not everything you read on the internet is what it’s advertised to be!