A recording of crickets chirping is said to sound like a human chorus singing in harmony when the sounds are slowed down. Is this true or false?
The sounds of crickets appear genuine, but the melody was likely added later.
Although the piece circulated heavily in late 2013, the music in question by Jim Wilson dates to the early 1990s. The liner notes of one version of the work explains the sounds:
Though it may sound like a synthesizer or a chorus singing; it’s the crickets themselves slowed way down, creating the effect of a choir of human voices. The sound created is a simple diatonic 7-note scale chord progression and melody with a multi-layered structure.
The song features two tracks: crickets chirping at normal speed, and the sound of crickets chirping “several octaves lower.” The slowed-down crickets sound amazingly like a harmonizing choir, singing in a major key.
The original cricket recording was captured by Jim Wilson and included on the album Medicine Songs as the track “Ballad of the Twister Hair.”
In 1994, the cricket track was featured on the soundtrack to the TBS documentary miniseries The Native Americans as the track “Twisted Hair.” That track also featured Native American opera singer Bonnie Jo Hunt, who sang an additional melody over the track. (Listen)
An extended version also exists, entitled “God’s Cricket Chorus” which does not have the narrative or Ms. Hunt’s vocals. (Listen below)
Bonnie Jo Hunt described the recording in a 2004 interview:
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.
Several musicians attempted to recreate the effect heard in the works above, and were unable to match the sounds in the Wilson recording.
Soundcloud user Dave D’aranjo attempted to recreate the cricket choir effect, slowing cricket chirping to various levels. His results (below) are are much more repetitive and the tones do not appear to be in a major key.
Another Soundcloud user, VCFX Recordings, also posted an experiment of crickets chirping which has been slowed down. The result is a pleasant, human-like tone, but it does not create a melody as found in the Wilson track. VCFX postulates that the “Cricket Choir” could have been created with similar cricket samples, but a melody added later by the composer, “It is my belief that Jim Wilson did in fact record crickets and pitch them down, but recorded his own melody using MIDI with the sample.“
VCFX Recordings has since removed their experiment from Soundcloud.
The harmonies and melody of the “cricket choir” seem too conveniently close to what is found in a man-made diatonic major scale. At normal speed, crickets chirp in a repetitive pattern, which the Soundcloud skeptics showed above. Several musicians have tried to duplicate the harmonizing, melodic choir sounds found in the “cricket choir” and have been unable to do so. A more likely explanation is that a sound sample was created from the slowed sound of crickets chirping, and a melody was played via MIDI using this sample. It is also possible that Mr. Wilson created several different samples matching notes in the major scale, and generated a melody based on those. Either way, it appears that some sort of melody was later added to the sound of crickets chirping. Wilson himself hinted that he may have in fact altered the pitch of the crickets in some way:
“I discovered that when I slowed down this recording to various levels, this simple familiar sound began to morph into something very mystic and complex……..almost human.”
The use of the term “various levels” may be an implication that this is not a raw, unaltered recording of crickets chirping several octaves lower, but a manipulation of these sounds. Whether these “various levels” were achieved via MIDI samples or another method is uncertain. It does seem clear that the cricket chorus is not simply the sound of crickets slowed down, but a manipulation in some way to achieve the familiar sounds of Western tonality.
Updated December 8, 2014
Originally published November 2013