Music and the Environment

Jean C. Hoem, THE CONSERVATIONIST, (25,4)4-5/71, P.2-4.

Music and the related arts–humanities, language, literature, art–all have great potential for helping in the development of [skills to solve our resource problems] and in promoting the kinds of attitudes that are the real heart of an environmental ethic. . . .

More music than one realizes has been composed as a direct response to an actual experience of the composer in nature. . . . Music of this kind has tremendous possibilities for creating environmental awareness and for developing in young people attitudes of care and concern for the environment. Awareness and appreciation are the prerequisites for developing an environmental ethic, and involvement is the key to learning these skills. Such involvement in [music] can be achieved through (1) listening, (2) performing, and (3) creating.

Listening to the Moldau (Watersheds and Rivers):

Listening to some kinds of music most surely helps develop an understanding of interrelationships, of harmony, and of design. For example, the concept of a watershed with all its interdependencies can be well-demonstrated while listening to “The Moldau” by Smetana.

This is a musical travelogue following a river from its source to the place where it becomes part of a larger body of water. The music begins with the murmuring of two flutes soon joined by two clarinets. Smetana himself writes that ‘the river springs from two sources, splashing gaily over the rocks and glistening in the sunshine.’ Lower strings, violins, and woodwinds are added as the river broadens. Without pause in the onward motion, trumpets, horns, and a triangle are heard ‘as the banks re-echo with the sound of a hunting horn.’ The main theme continues to build, leading to a turbulent passage played mainly by brasses. ‘See now the rapids of St. John, on whose rocks the foaming waves are dashed in spray . . .’ continues Smetana.

With very little suggestion–possibly with none–students can draw out on paper this river as described by the music. This is a positive activity because all drawings are satisfactory–no wrong answers! Each person brings to the drawing his own personal experience or knowledge of a river. As they share their drawings and then compare them with the map of the real Moldau, they become interested in seeing the actual river. Since this river is not easily accessible, they look about for comparable rivers closer to home. Then come the questions: How can you tell what direction a river is flowing? Are any of these rivers alike? What is a “pollutant”? Are there dams on all these rivers? Are the fish in the Columbia the same kind that are in the Moldau?

Listening To The Pastoral Symphony (Weather concepts):

An understanding of the composer’s purpose in writing a particular piece of music can contribute greatly to the teaching of awareness and appreciation of the environment. Weather concepts are beautifully–and quite deliberately–dramatized by Beethoven in the Sixth Symphony, the “Pastoral”. As stated in George Marek’s book, the Nine Symphonies of Beethoven: A Key To Greater Listening Pleasure, “Beethoven leaves no doubt that he wants to share with us the pleasure he takes in Nature, his love for the open air.”

Each movement carries a sub-title written in by Beethoven himself: (1) “Cheerful impressions awakened by arrival in the country.” (2)”Scene By the brook.” (3)”Merry gathering of country folk.”(The country dance is interrupted by a “Thunderstorm”, which is the transition to the fourth movement.) (4) “Shepherd’s Song. Glad and grateful feelings after the storm.” The most dramatic part of this–musically–is the Thunderstorm, as one hears gusts of wind and the raindrops, then lightning and thunder breaking through in full force.

To appreciate the environmental aspects of the music of Beethoven, one needs to know something about Beethoven, the man. This music was composed when he was totally deaf–his mind having absorbed the sounds of the natural world in his youth, those sounds indelibly stamped on his consciousness, to be listened to whenever he desired. Today’s technological man stands apart from nature–maneuvering, manipulating, managing. By contrast, Beethoven exemplifies what is so sorely needed–man viewing himself within nature.

Haydn’s The Creation

Haydn’s The Creation is an oratorio. The following is a brief example of some of the concepts developed musically (from AGE OF ELEGANCE: A LISTENER’S GUIDE TO THE RECORDINGS): “The water’s ‘above the firmament’ are what a modern weatherman would call ‘atmospheric conditions’, and the orchestra paints tiny vignettes of seven of them: raging tempests, storm-driven clouds, lightning, thunder, rain, hail and snow. Especially effective are the last tow: the pelting of hail and the fleecy fall of snow . . . . Haydn paints a picture of mountains emerging from the sea; rivers run through the plains . . . and at the end an irresistible melody brings in the murm’ring, sliver brook.”


All music books contain a number of songs about natural resources and the environment. With a minimum of suggestion these songs can reinforce conservation concepts previously presented. For the songs-to-sing experiences, the environmental concepts are generally described in the song titles. . . . The list could be as long as there are songs to be sung and people to sing them.

There are many ways to enrich the singing experience: guitar and autoharp accompaniment; piano accompaniment; other instruments used as they are available as supplementary accompaniments(melody bells, violin, cello, flute, clarinet, trumpet, rhythm instruments).

For performing-by-playing experiences, any instruments available can be used to duplicate or imitate sounds of nature. Creative experiences offer unlimited possibilities: improvising musical instruments from natural resources(i.e., rocks-in-a-box, thistle whistle, or straw flute); whistling original bird calls; translating bird calls into musical notation, then developing these into songs; improvising conservation words to simple, familiar tune; creating stories about the environment and conservation, using experiences and information learned from previous activities. All composed music and original dramas should be performed to complete the creative experience.

Another kind of creative musical experience is that of interpreting environmental music through body movement. This becomes more than a dance-type experience, providing the performer truly internalizes the music during the first listening, perhaps by drawing the music out on paper. The first time I have students try this, I have them remain at their own desks and suggest that they use head, shoulders and and arms only. When most of the class demonstrates movement that follows the music fairly accurately, I let small groups (6 or 7 at a time) experiment up on their feet, using whole body movements. This serves a a kind of role play: plants growing, breakers rolling, trees swaying, twisting, bending, wind whipping.

Writing Conservation Songs:

Another interesting creative musical experience for my students has been to share some of the conservation songs that I have written, some created specifically for them. With concepts of music education in mind while writing these songs, attention was focused on designing (1)songs that, hopefully, would appeal to all age groups; (2) songs that would be musically interesting in melody, harmony, rhythm, and form; and (3) songs that would strengthen man’s awareness of and appreciation for his environment in the world around him.

The texts for the songs were created in an effort to support three conservation education concepts: (1) Conservation is everybody’s business. (2) Among the many natural resources available, the potential of man supersedes all others. (3) Communication is basic to all education.

All of these original songs have been presented to and performed by students in the music classrooms of several elementary and junior high schools. In each situation–and at all grade levels–this activity generated intelligent conversation and the students displayed a genuine concern for the current problems of the environment. And again, in each situation, the students asked to sing the songs several times through the year.

If opportunities for participation in all these various kinds of musical activity are presented to students and accepted by them as worthwhile, it does not guarantee that an environment ethic is being developed. However, since and environmental ethic must necessarily begin with an awareness of and appreciation for the resources involved, it may be assumed that positive involvement in these kinds of activities could be a good beginning.

All of these experiences–listening, performing, creating–help to fulfill that personal desire to respond individually to a basic question: What meaning does this(fact, idea, concept, generalization) have for me?