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Learning Activity

Sound Play: Natural Music


Art Form
Music, drawing
Art, Science, Language Arts, Music
Grade Levels
You will need
Some time outdoors in a natural setting
One to two hours


All life exists in community. One way we can know this is listen to the natural world. Many unique voices harmonize into a larger piece of natural music. Natural sounds are the result of different parts of a natural community interacting with each other. Animals, especially birds, use sounds to communicate (connect).

The activity explores natural sounds as both an indication of community and a source for music. Students will observe natural sounds, make their own drawn symbols for them and use them to create small group community 'symphonies'. Students will learn some spring bird songs and play with them as an illustration of competition/cooperation.


The Activity

Warm-ups for Sound Making

1. Get in a circle. One student makes a natural sound and an action to go with it. (i.e. an acorn falls through leaves and plops on the ground; a squirrel scolds; a bird 'chips'; wind through pines; wind rustlin cornfield)The next person mimics the sound and action. The group passes it around the circle as fast as possible, until the first has repeated it, then the next person starts a sound and action. Take this process around the circle for as long as it feels useful.

2. Ask each student: "Make up a sound for how you feel right now. Do it with your body and your voice."

Discuss: Name or make some natural sounds. In almost every case such sounds are the result of some sort of interaction or relationship within a community (woodpecker and a tree, wind and grass, rain and lake, wind in corn leaves). All lives connect within a community . Most animal calls are a result of an animal communicating with other animals: warning, defending territory, attracting a mate. Try to name or imagine the relationship each sound you named is describing.

Read aloud "Everything Sings" from the student source sheet. Share examples of natural sounds that are like human music. Find examples of sounds that are:

1. Melody --a bird singing, or a brook running through stones or branches
2. Rhythm --a woodpecker drumming , bird flapping, rain falling
3. Drones --a grasshopper, spring frogs, wind
4. Accent --thunder, twig snap, bark, a cardinal's "chip" note.

There are many natural sounds that we can't hear. They may be a frequency too high or low for us to hear. Bat chirps for their sonar, for example.

We may see something that suggests a sound even though we can hear it (a bird beating its wings to a certain rhythm.) We can imagine sounds for things based on how an action looks or feels. Imagine a song for a humming bird, then for a bear. How might they differ?

Rhythm Play: Listen to your pulse, your breath: now tap, walk or dance to that rhythm.

One student acts out a sound movement, another plays a drum to show the rhythm: running, walking, skipping, bear, bee, bird, crickets, robin flying, grass in wind.

Collect Sounds:

Go on a hike to a natural community (woods, pond, prairie, meadow) to collect some natural sounds. If it is not possible to take a class hike, assign students to do this on their own, or play a commercial recording of a natural environment.

Here are some ways to practice listening and go beyond just naming sounds:

• count sounds,
•listen for silences between those and how long they last,
• locate sounds (draw a sound map),
• mimic sounds,
• make up words for them,
• spread out along a trail to listen and collect sounds.

• for each sound, guess what is happening--what players in this natural community are connecting?

Ask students to 'collect' some natural sounds by inventing symbols for their sounds; simple sketches that can be drawn quickly and repetitively. They will be using these later, for their own musical notation system. Below is a sample of such inventions:


A Birdsong Map by Hannah Hinchman, from her book
A Trail Through Leaves


Ask students to try collecting at least one melody, one rhythm, one drone and one accent sound.

Community Symphonic Soundshare

Students pick three sounds they heard that they can mimic (either with voice, hands or found instrument). Ask students to pick one from melody, one from rhythm, and one from eith accent or drone. They each invent and draw a symbol (their own musical notation) for each sound.

Divide into groups of 4-6 students.

Members of each group quickly share their sounds.
Each group then composes a brief piece of music using the chosen sounds. the composition should have a beginning, middle, end and include some melodic sounds, rhythm, drone or accent.

Play with having sounds repeat or be performed at the same time.

Practice together, listening to how it sounds.

Each group draws their composition on a large sheet of paper using their sound symbols.

Practice and perform. It's a good idea to have the groups perform in sequence, so a kind of natural community "symphony" emerges.

Bird Sounds Variation

Notice bird calls and songs. Birds use calls year round to communicate with other birds. Bird songs are used in spring to set up nesting territories.

Many birds, such as robins, bluebirds or red-winged blackbirds may be returning to the area and getting ready to set up nesting territories.

Birds that have stayed the winter, such as chickadees or cardinals are already practicing their spring songs.

A certain habitat will provide food for many different kinds of animals.

However, the animals of the same species (a chickadee, for example) need the same kind of food.

During nesting season, when getting enough food is so important, birds of the same species cooperate to make sure they aren't competing too heavily for the same food.

Each bird will claim a territory large enough to feed its family and defend it by singing its song. Another chickadee hearing that same song will move to a different territory. If you can imitate a bird song well enough, that bird may move in closer and sing back, to defend its territory from you.

Bird Choir:
Get a bird call CD from the library or ask a birder to visit the class and learn five or six local bird songs.
Practice mimicking the songs by singing, whistling and making up word phrases.

Northern nesting birds might include

Cardinals, purty-purty-purty
Chickadees fee-bee-ee
Red-winged Blackbird, o-ka-leeeee
Robins cheer-up, cheer-up. . . . . .cheerily
Killdeer killdeer, killdeer, killdeer
Eastern Bluebird chur chur-lee chur-lee

After the group practices and learns five or six bird songs, the teacher secretly assigns one birdsong to each student, so that there are at least a few of each kind and no one knows what anyone else is. In the classroom, gym or lawn,have students quietly begin making 'their song'. Have them move around singly, pausing to sing, and moving slowly among the other students to be able to listen to the others. When they hear a bird of their own kind, they must move at least 10 feet away, but it is all right to be next to other kinds of birds. Eventually the 'birds' should have distributed themselves through the space.

Discuss what the game sounded like.

• Ask students to consider why members of a species would disperse themselves this way in the nesting season? Is there some ecological advantage to such dispersal?


• Play a recording of nature sounds or a musician collaborating with natural sounds (i.e. Paul Winter). How is it like a piece of music? What instruments do certain voices remind you of? What kind of a sound would you make that would harmonize with this natural music.

• Use recorders to record natural sounds and combine these sounds to make a piece of music.


By observing and playing with natural sounds, students will increase their sense of wonder and understanding of the complexity of the natural world. By recreating sounds into a composition, students will gain confidence in some of the basic skills of musical expression and expand their sense of connection to the natural world.

Student Source Sheet Soundplay: Natural Music

Art does imitate nature!

A scientist, Susumu Ohno was studying genes, some of the basic chemical structures in cells that make living beings what they are. He decided to convert some of the chemical formulas into musical notes because the flowing, repetitious nature of the genes reminded him of music. He discovered that genes not only carry the blueprint for life, they also carry a tune!

• Mouse RNA sounds like a lively waltz.
• A cancer gene in humans is very similar to a funeral march by Chopin.
• An enzyme that helps us digest sugar sounds like a lullaby.

Everything Sings
Everything sings.

Birds do, of course
Even trees

have their own songs.
Wolves make easy
running rhythms.

Water plays in great
crashing choruses
and back beat drop notes.


No song is ever solo.
Frogs collaborate with fish
and pond water. Insects hum

to the beat of bird wings.
Sunrise in spring
is a symphony.

Imagine the songs
in a forest, in a galaxy
inside of you?

If you listen,
you will find one.

If you sing
it won't be a solo.

—by Kay Grindland

Animals make sounds for many reasons: if they are hurt, to call for help, scare predators, warn other animals, to claim territory, to announce location, locate others, locate food, attract mate, echo-location (like bats), to express feelings like irritation or joy, to connect better with their mate or group.

Can you think of a time when making sounds together helped you feel closer with a group of people?


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