Tuning In to the Music of Cicadas

Although the arrival of the Brood II 17-year cicadas has been heralded for a hundred and fifty years, they have never gotten such a welcome in the media as in 2013. Nearly every news outlet is full of stories on the impending Swarmageddon, Cicadapocalypse, or other insect disaster. Here are some of the more surprising tales:

Cicadas in politics? Did Ronald Reagan really ask all those cicadas in congress to go back underground so we could balance the budget? Will your pets really choke on the hard brittle wings? "Imagine a backyard full of chicken nuggets," warns the Humane Society The Economist dared to use the cicadas to speculate on what American will be like the next time they appear, in 2030.

All this attention is fine and grand, but most of it misses the point. The once-every-17-years arrival of these Magicicadas is a rare and beautiful event, something that above all must be experienced to be understood. What begins as a wash of white noise soon becomes a complex courtship music, once we learn the sequence of three male and one female mating sounds that the periodic cicadas have evolved to repeat anon during these vast emergences. If you're in New York you can come to our World Science Festival event next week. More cicada events are detailed here.

The best event, though, is one you can do on your own. Check out the latest updated map of where the singing cicadas have emerged and take a trip. Head for the suburbs of Maryland and Jersey, or a week or two later tour the Hudson Valley, and you will find not swarms, but choruses, resounding over your heads. You'll hear the main "phaaaroah" sound of Magicicada septendecim dissolving into a wide, tonal ensemble of "oooooooooooo", and then the synchronized "sssshhhhhhSHSHHHSHSHshshhhhh" sound of the other main species that emerges, Magicicada cassini, and if you listen closely, you can hear their successive step by step mating calls, and if you're lucky, the faint and elusive female cicada wing-flick that means so much to the male cicadas. Without it, no mating will ever happen.

It's all detailed elegantly on this recent episode of Radiolab Do it this year... otherwise you will have to wait until 2030, and who knows what the world will be like then?
Hear the cicadas before they hear you! No, don't worry about that, they're most interested in themselves, though I have tried to get a sound in human-wise:

I'm not sure how much they were influenced by my human intervention, but this experience did bring me closer to learning what it was like to be one musician among millions. I really felt a sense of loss, a few weeks later, when they were gone.

One scientist who grasped this same feeling early on was entomologist H.A. Allard, who wrote this in the 1920: "I felt a positive sadness when I realized that the great visitation was over, and there was silence in the world again, and all were dead that had so recently lived and filled the world with noise and movement. I could not but feel that I had lived to witness one of the great events of existence, like the visitation of a great comet."

It's the same thing that Ou-Yang Hsiu understood in the year 1056, when in China he reflected on the disappearance of cicadas way back then:

Myriads of creatures--each after its own shape and kin
Hold at their season ceaseless tournaments of song;
Swiftly, swiftly, their days run out,
time transmutes them, and then there is silence--

Desert-silence where they sang.

The silence comes and we realized in fact we loved the noise. We can remember the story this time over the next seventeen years, and hope we're around next time to celebrate this great insect music again. I predict that by then humans will have evolved to appreciate far more natural music than even today, and I hope we will have treated the planet with enough respect to still be able to enjoy the great songs of the many other species with which we share this Earth.