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The Septendecennial Sing-Along

Tuesday, May 14, 2013 - 05:00 PM

Every 17 years, a deafening sex orchestra hits the East Coast -- billions and billions of cicadas crawl out of the ground, sing their hearts out, then mate and die. In this short, Jad and Robert talk to a man who gets inside that noise to dissect its meaning and musical components.

While most of us hear a wall of white noise, squeaks, and squawks....David Rothenberg hears a symphony. He's trained his ear to listen for the music of animals, and he's always looking for chances to join in, with everything from lonely birds to giant whales to swarming cicadas.

In this podcast, David explains his urge to connect and sing along, and helps break down the mysterious life cycle and mating rituals of the periodical cicadas into something we can all relate to.

David Rothenberg making music with the cicadas.Courtesy of David Rothenberg/Bug Music

A visual breakdown of the cicada mating calls:

Courtesy of John Cooley and David Marshall at UConn. For more on cicada mating calls, take a look at this paper from Cooley and Marshall.

A close-up of cicadas getting down:

Courtesy of David Rothenberg/Bug Music

Enjoy a free download of our favorite track from David's CD Bug Music -- here's the description from the liner notes:

Katydid Prehistory: Named in honor of Archaboilus musicus, the 165 million year old prehistoric katydid, whose fossil remains reveal an ability to sing distinct pitches.

Katydid Prehistory


David Rothenberg


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Comments [22]

Megan from palm springs

The sax playing bug man is the greatest photo I've ever seen. I'm positive that after women lay eyes on this man and hear the sweet sounds of his bug symphony bursts of intense ear orgasms occur.

Aug. 06 2017 02:09 PM
Karlos from Lexington KY

From listening to episode I realized so much!!

Whales: Like contemporary Jazz/Blues sound.

Birds: Like poppy Rock sounds.

Bugs: Like HipHop Techno sound's.

Jun. 04 2014 02:14 PM

There was a redwing blackbird whose call sounded just like the first 6 notes of "Under My Thumb" by the Rolling Stones. My office was across the way from a small forested wetlands where the redwing seemed to live. Year after year I heard it, amazing.

Jun. 03 2014 01:58 AM
Jason from Canada

P. Lutus provides an concise evolutionary explanation why the cicada have 13 or 17 year cycles:

Dec. 16 2013 07:45 PM

Why do they appear once in exactly 17 years, not in 16 or 18? I've heard somewhere that there is a closely related species that appear once in every 13 years. The speciality of these numbers is that they both being fairly large enough prime numbers, make their least common multiple huge! (in terms of YEARS). That means the two species rarely have chance to bump into each other in their mating season; only once in every 221 years! This is an evolutionary trait, and the whole point of it is to keep them from mixing.

Oct. 15 2013 02:57 PM

I used to despise Cicadas. 16 years ago in Nashville TN, they invaded and annoyed my 16 year old self. These Cicada's have a different clock than the 2013 ones but once again they came in 2011. Their song is marvelous and hypnotizing. I look forward to hearing it again.

Here is a video that this podcast inspired me to post:

Sep. 04 2013 11:56 PM

I didn't know Will Ferrell played the clarinet.

Jul. 27 2013 08:24 PM
Bridget from Chicago

This whale could use someone to talk to....

Jul. 18 2013 08:55 PM
Alicia Cohen

This was so profound...through his work I experienced one of those transformative moments. I think this kind of art signals a Copernican moment in our culture. This is music made from the Ecological world view rather than the Anthropocentric. Doctor Doolittle except we are speaking the animals' language and being transformed by them--though this may not be entirely obvious--as much as we are better "understanding" them.

Jul. 13 2013 02:37 PM

Went on a foray to Hudson Valley last weekend (June 2+3). Here are some pictures from the Hudson Valley Fruit Laboratory at Highland, NY:

Jun. 11 2013 08:53 PM
Danna Shibolet from Israel

You have succeeded elegantly where I failed effortfully. I've been trying to record cicadas here on the mediterenean coast north of tel Aviv [Israel] for some years. My intention was to have the ability to listen to it truly and thoroughly at home, and turn these lovable attraction sounds - to a dance score. Since here, their unisons, overlappings, and solos, are no less magnificent, and their rhythmic factor is unique, both make it a perfect challenge for dancers to achieve a variable of steps in varying speed, attack, etc...In my case the wind interfered and "damped" the sounds to a faint rush. I was using low tech stuff, I'm curious to know, how high did your equipment get to have this wonderful work done?

Jun. 03 2013 07:10 AM
Mike Holberger from olympia, wa

after sunset in the forests of the PNW, ill play my trumpet by the fireside and it will attract MOLES. the first sign that the moles are coming is a high frequency squeaking that sounds like a squeaky wheel. then they come out to take a look. before this i had never seen a mole in the wild.

May. 30 2013 06:17 PM
Valentina from Camp Hill, PA

I didn't see much science in this podcast. There is no way of knowing if whales responded to music or not, beside trusting the feeling of David Rothenberg. Why, instead of a musician/philosopher, didn't you interview a scientist that seriously studies animal calls? Thumb down for this podcast, it didn't teach me much.

May. 25 2013 05:42 PM
Kayt from Tennessee

In Japan, they sometimes refer to different cicadas by their sounds. For instance, there are the min min (pronounced meen meen) ones, the tsuku-tsuku-boshi, and so on.
You can check out more here:

May. 22 2013 11:41 AM
Rachel from San Diego, CA

Bugs, sex and rock and roll!

May. 21 2013 03:18 PM
David Lightfoot from Melbourne, Australia

Great Podcast once again, thanks- Its interesting from an Australian's perspective seeing the excitement building for this summer's North American cicada emergence. In Australia we have a multitude of cicada species, and a proportion of them come out every summer. Each year it seems to be of approximatley the same number/volume, presumably about 1/17th of the whole population. Every summer we are greeted by their raucous noise. This year after hearing your podcast, though, I'm going to try to tease out their different calls. Thanks again

PS. So anyone wanting to research more only needs to wait one rather than 17 years by heading "Down Under"!

May. 20 2013 11:39 PM
Raj from NY

I love how the disco music implies the cicadas are "gettin' busy".

May. 20 2013 03:38 PM
a j mithra from Chennai, India

Interesting podcast. Would like to know if cicadas sing in rhythm. Have heard crickets sing in rhythm and in fact i've done a musical piece using natural cricket sounds. Here is the link for the same..

May. 19 2013 09:44 AM
Jonathon from Edmonton, Alberta

After listening to this podcast, I couldn't help but find a similarity between the cicada's three calls and the three types of shofar blasts heard in a temple near you several times a year.

"Hello" = Teki’ah (a single blast)
"I'm getting closer" = Shva’rim (a series of three blasts)
"And now we're kissing etc. etc." = Teruah (nine short rapid blasts)

May. 17 2013 05:59 PM

I was listening to a live stream of whales off the Hawaiian coast, when out of the blue I heard a whale do a classic blues progression.

May. 17 2013 01:21 AM
Jack Bag from Sunny Arizona

Why was it never mentioned if the cicadas reacted to the music or not? I guess they didn't, given their overall intelligence as compared to birds & whales. I found the interactions especially interesting, and I would LOVE to hear more about the musical communication with animals & what we can deduct. Thank you.

May. 16 2013 04:59 PM
Don Davis from Manchester NH

Very interesting story and sounds! Ive been reading the book "Bug Music".

May. 14 2013 11:02 PM

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