U2’s 360° Tour requires more than 100 trucks to move from city to city. The UK firm CarbonFootprint Ltd estimates the group would need to plant at least 20,000 trees to offset the tour’s greenhouse gas emissions. Rock star David Byrne called U2’s tour environmental “overkill.”

Byrne is not the only global pop star who is becoming more aware of—and working to reduce—music’s environmental impact. Guster, Arcade Fire and Radiohead are among the growing number of musicians who perform carbon-neutral concerts. They and other bands incorporate environmental education directly into their concerts.

Now, if only music researchers could catch up.

Fortunately, more and more musicologists are gaining ecological interest. From the environmental impact of violin manufacture to the cultural resonance of eco-pop, an increasing number are examining the many ways in which music relates to environment. Most of this work is taking place in an emerging subdiscipline of musicology: ecomusicology.

Soundscape Design

In the past, music scholars have shown sporadic interest in the relationship between music and the environment. In The Music of Nature, published in 1838, William Gardiner argued that music is one of humanity’s most integral connections to nature. The book captured a large readership –including Charles Darwin, who read it before writing On the Origin of Species in 1859. At various times since, musicologists have undertaken environmental studies of music, but that work has never coalesced into a sustained, field-changing focus.

Until fairly recently, the term “ecology” has been either employed metaphorically in musicology or restricted to the most immediate performance contexts. In the 1970s, Canadian composer and environmentalist R. Murray Schafer instituted “soundscape studies,” which inspired many scholars to study music and sound as environmental phenomena. However, although several landscape designers and architects were inspired by Schafer to integrate critical soundscape principles into their designs, Schafer’s very promising movement failed to ignite wider interest in the musicological community.

Three decades later, a new generation of musicologists is bringing attention back to soundscapes, renewing Schafer’s call for a more ecologically resonant understanding of musical performance. Among them is Ellen Waterman, director of the School of Music at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Waterman and a dynamic group of graduate students have been reminding musicologists that ecomusicology has much to draw on beyond literary ecocriticism. Searching for relevant theory, ecomusicologists have found literary ecocriticism appealing, but there is a point at which theories developed for the written and spoken word fail to capture music’s unique qualities. Ecomusicology is finally starting to formulate its own theoretical frameworks.

Now, almost everyone seems to be jumping on board. The Society for Ethnomusicology dedicated its entire 2010 conference to the theme “Sound Ecologies.” Although only a handful of conference papers actually dealt with environmental matters, it showed there is a growing desire to take environmental questions seriously.

In fact, ethnomusicologists have completed some of the most fundamental ecomusicological studies. For example, ethnomusicologist Steven Feld has studied the ritual re-creation of birdsong among the Bosavi of Papua New Guinea, and, in Where Rivers and Mountains Sing, Theodore Levin explores the connection between “throat singing” of Tuvan musicians of Inner Asia and the Tuvan caves in which it was developed and is often performed. Rather than simple theses and universal laws, cultural scientists like Feld and Levin uncover each society’s deep musical connections to place. As with the music of other societies, Bosavi and Tuvan music reflects and reproduces cultural connections to nature. In fact, it is hard to imagine a deep environmental connection without music.

The most promising new group of ecomusicologists might be the American Musicological Society’s Ecocriticism Study Group. Leading the way is society co-founder and chair Aaron Allen. When asked why he and his colleagues started the study group, Allen answered, “To save the world.”

Of course, Allen does not really believe music will lead to environmental salvation. However, he points out that “the environmental crisis is fundamentally a cultural problem” and that cultural researchers, including musicologists, can contribute a great deal to our understanding of ecological problems.

Allen, a musicologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, notes that colleagues used to snicker when he mentioned ecomusicology. They don’t anymore. As a further sign of acceptance, ecomusicology has recently been included in The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. In other words, it seems to be taking off.

Ecosystems Thinking

So, what do ecomusicologists do? Answers to that are as wide-ranging as music’s relationship to the environment.

Some ecomusicologists explore how music motivates and persuades consumers, activists or political actors. Others are concerned about the direct impacts of sound, such as the effects of loud music and urban noise on bird communication and reproduction. Musical neuroscientists and anthropologists have begun thinking about the social and evolutionary roles of music in relation to human ecologies, past and present. Some ecomusicologists are more interested in the semiotics of sound, the meanings people ascribe to place through music, and what those musical meanings entail for sustaining ecosystems.

Ecomusicologists widen musicological research to include local, regional and even global contexts. Traditionally, musicology has tended to focus on text and performance alone. While fundamental, such considerations do not allow for holistic and systemic—and therefore ecological—understandings of music to develop. Ecomusicologists are reintroducing ecosystems thinking to the study of music.

Allen’s research is an excellent case in point. At the 2010 Society for Ethnomusicology conference, Allen underscored “the connections between ecological sustainability and cultural sustainability.” His own research on violin manufacture makes the point by demonstrating how the violin brings hardwoods from Brazil and Italy together onto “the global stage.” Allen connects the overharvesting of hardwoods on a local level to globalized musical practices, using the violin as both metaphor and material link for understanding music’s complex relationship to global ecologies.

In the past, many musicologists have had trouble incorporating material questions into their aesthetic analyses. That struggle is mirrored by material scientists’ difficulties in dealing with anthropogenic variables, such as music. In his 2004 book, Ecocriticism, literary critic Greg Garrard argues that the way to bridge this divide is to develop more “constructive relations between the green humanities and the environmental sciences.” Ecomusicologists are forging such synthetic connections, much in the spirit of biologist E.O. Wilson’s call for interdisciplinary “consilience.”

That is a primary purpose of ecomusicology. From studies of Ferde Grofé’s advocacy for the Grand Canyon to John Luther Adams’ contemporary work in the Alaskan wilderness, ecomusicologists are playing a critical role in bringing together the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. The goal is to understand musical ecologies more holistically so that musical research, production and performance can help create sustainable soundscapes and societies. From climatologists’ satellite images to biochemists’ molecular models, our understanding and conception of environment is mostly visual. Ecomusicology is making us aware of the sound dimension as well.

Thus far ecomusicology has focused mainly on classical music. But what about the music most people listen to on their iPods? Is anyone examining that? The honest answer is, “not many.” However, while classical musicologists are leading the way, there are signs that popular music researchers will catch up. For example, David Ingram’s book The Jukebox in the Garden provides a historical survey of the culture industry’s troubled pop ecology, as well as promising exceptions. From Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” (1970) to “Gaia” (2010), a hit by Mexico’s pop idol, Belinda, a rare cadre of popular musicians has demonstrated concern for the environment. Those who study popular music are finally following suit.

Beyond Selling Soft Drinks

Why does ecomusicology matter? For starters, music fits into the big black box of “anthropogenic variables” so often used to describe cultural influences on the environment. Ill-equipped to deal with the human beliefs and behaviors that alter ecosystems, many environmental scientists set them aside, assuming social scientists and others will eventually attend to the complex problem of culture. Ecomusicology is musicology’s way of taking up that challenge.

As musicologists, neuroscientists, paleoanthropologists and others have shown, music plays a central role in how humans think about the world and act within it. If our songs are all about sex, love and consumption, we might have a problem. Songs that draw our attention to environmental problems hold the promise to do more than just sell soft drinks.

In truth, very few songs will be written about endocrine disruptors or carbon cycling, but there are hundreds of other ways music relates to environmental outcomes. As Aaron Allen has shown, the fate of Pernambuco forests in Brazil is determined in part by the musical tones demanded by aficionados, virtuosos and luthiers alike. The fate of timber is tied to, well, timbre. Similarly, music connects kids to Coke machines, protesters to policies and folksingers to forests.

Environmental researchers are just beginning to examine musical ecologies in earnest. New wave or passing fad, ecomusicology holds great promise to expand our understanding of ecosystems and, perhaps, lead to even more sound ecologies.

MARK PEDELTY is an associate professor in the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication (College of Liberal Arts) and a resident fellow in the Institute on the Environment. His new book on popular music and the environment, Rave Paradise or Rock in a Parking Lot?, will be published in Spring 2012.

Cultural Connections


Why does the link between environment and music matter? Because ultimately the environmental crisis is a cultural problem – and music is one of the most powerful forms of cultural mediation, expression and communication, an emotional force with serious environmental outcomes. Music is employed by malls and media to increase consumption, performing an unsustainable ecological role in much of contemporary society. But music can also inspire us to become better stewards. Music links us to nature and helps us form meaningful cultural connections to the places where we live.

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