Music Therapy For People and Animals

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Jim Nollman is learning more about how animals respond to music.

Even homesteaders need to relax and enjoy themselves from time to time, right? And almost everybody these days wants to cut his or her cost of living. So, how about a little do-it-yourself entertainment?

That’s what this column is all about. Down-home music that you can make and the instruments (which, in some cases, you can also make!) to play that music on.

Although almost everyone is aware that humans can use music to communicate their feelings to one another, not many folks have ever seriously considered the potential of that medium for establishing contact between people and members of other species. (Oh sure, Disney films often feature such characters as Uncle Remus talking and singing with wild creatures, but — for most of us — that sort of childhood fantasy has long since faded.)

So, as you can imagine, it was with a certain amount of amazement that I first read about the work of Jim Nollman, the young man who founded a non-profit research organization called Interspecies Communication. Jim has conducted a number of experiments (both on land and at sea) in an ongoing attempt to establish musical rapport with animals. Some of the species he’s “jammed” with are kangaroo rats, turkeys, wolves and dolphins.

Musical Conversation With Whales

Jim’s work with some of the largest members of the mammal family, the orcas — or killer whales — has resulted in his most astounding achievements to date. For example, while using sophisticated underwater sound equipment off the coast of British Columbia, Nollman was actually able — by playing the guitar — to sustain a lengthy musical conversation with a group of the whales. The marine mammals, he reports, tried to teach him a melody line. When Jim played it incorrectly, the orcas patiently (or so it seemed) repeated the sequence more slowly. Then, when he did manage to get it right, they went on to teach him some additional notes!

What, you may ask, can such experiments be expected to accomplish? Well, for one thing, Jim hopes that his work will aid in establishing the intelligence and worth of such creatures as whales and dolphins. By doing so, eventually help to spare them from wholesale slaughter at the hands of merchant whalers and fishing fleets.

In fact, Jim’s group has recently sought to stop the killing of dolphins at Iki Island in Japan — where commercial anglers have been waging war against the marine mammals that “invade” their fishing waters — by recommending the use of a sonic device that would warn the dolphins away and thus make violence unnecessary.

In a larger context, Nollman’s work can also be of value to our own species. By attempting to communicate musically with the other creatures that share this planet, perhaps we can learn to live more harmoniously with the world around us. To many people, “intelligence” is a concept implicitly associated with humanity alone. But, when we begin to discover evidence of such awareness in other species, we may also allow ourselves to recognize the vestiges of the wild animal that exist in all of us.

Jim became involved in his unique research several years ago in southern Mexico, while taking a vacation from the New York-London nightclub circuit to practice country blues on a 12-stringed Portuguese instrument called the vihuela. Jim noticed that tropical birds appeared to be attracted by his music. Some even boldly approached him as he played. Intrigued by the possibilities of such interaction, the musician embarked on a series of experiments, which have since been featured on television’s Real People and Those Amazing Animals.

Through the work of Interspecies Communication, Jim hopes to familiarize an even larger audience with his findings. Among the group’s proposed projects is a nationwide tour to publicize the research by means of multimedia presentations. Jim would also like to mass-produce cassette recordings of his “dialogues” with animals.

IC’s chief undertaking at present, however, is its search for a permanent location where Jim can continue to study “conversational Orcan.” He needs a deep-water cove that would allow him to build a studio near the shore and then run wires out to underwater speakers and microphones.

When I first read about Nollman (in the January 1981 issue of Guitar Player), I was so excited that I immediately wrote him a letter expressing my interest in reporting his work in this column. Jim suggested that I interview him by phone and what follows are edited portions of our conversation.

BRISTOL: Jim, I think I mentioned in my letter that I find your work particularly fascinating because I used to go out in the woods with my bamboo flute and join in the birds’ evening songs. I never thought I was doing anything very unusual, either. I guess because I’d seen similar relationships in children’s movies.

NOLLMAN: That’s understandable. In fact, in a session with a flock of turkeys some years ago, I played a tune called “Froggie Went A-Courtin’,” which is a real Walt Disney kind of song.

BRISTOL: And how did the gobblers react to that?

NOLLMAN: The same way they’d react to a bulldozer or any other loud noise: When a sound reaches a certain pitch, the birds all gobble at once! The reaction reminds me of what happens when a basketball player sinks a goal in a tense game . . . the crowd erupts in a cheer. But, you have to catch the turkeys’ energy — somewhat like a surfer catching a wave — and ride with it. If you make the pitch even a little too high, they’ll get tense and aggravated.

BRISTOL: That, of course, has little to do with actual communication. What happened when you “conversed” with whales?

NOLLMAN: In those experiments, I really thought we were coming together and exchanging some information using a standard musical language of rhythms and phrasings. After they’d taught me a melody, for example, I played them a reggae riff — for two days straight — that had only three major chords. Finally, they began to answer me in fourth harmonies . . . actually anticipating the chord changes!

BRISTOL: Is it possible that whales use a musical language as their primary means of communication?

NOLLMAN: I don’t know what the creatures use to talk to each other, but I do know they’re extremely conscious of pitch and phrasing. For instance, if I “say” something to them on my guitar, they’ll wait until I’m finished before they respond. I imagine that — like us — marine mammals do use sound to communicate ideas. When they converse with me, however, their “voices” create a musical dialogue.

BRISTOL: Do you suppose that whales engage in “ensemble playing” among themselves . . . and if so, do you think the activity has a ritual significance, or is it purely recreational?

NOLLMAN: Yes, I’ve heard them do it, and it sure sounds as if they’re enjoying themselves! That music is reminiscent of the choral singing of birds or frogs.

BRISTOL: I know what you mean. I once lived across the street from a pond that housed what I came to call the “Frogon Tabernacle Choir.” I even used to go over there and record their singing! What other species have you jammed with?

NOLLMAN: I’ve done some work with the kangaroo rat, a desert rodent that thumps rhythmically on top of its burrow. The first time I heard it, it seemed to me that the tunnels were actually “tuned” like pipes. An animal would thump on one mound and then move three feet away to make a different tone on another one.

BRISTOL: Did you try to play some sort of percussion with the kangaroo rats?

NOLLMAN: At that time I was just beginning my research and wasn’t sure what would work, so I took along a number of different instruments, most of them drums. Eventually, though, I used only stones I found on the ground! The resulting tape, of course, sounds very strange. My research with wolves was more interesting, though. I believe that they produce the best ensemble choral groups on this planet, bar none.

BRISTOL: Do the animals actually howl harmonies with each other?

NOLLMAN: Not only that, but if I ever went flat in pitch while we were playing together, they’d all immediately stop calling! It seemed the pack was always willing to let me sit in, but only if one performed their way.

BRISTOL: Did you howl along or did you choose to play an instrument?

NOLLMAN: I worked with a Japanese wooden flute called the shakuhachi. I’ve used the guitar only with whales, but I also tried several kinds of homemade tongue drums in an experiment some years ago with gray whales. If you play them by rubbing the surfaces of the tongues — rather than hitting them with rubber mallets — they sound just like whales. I made another drum that has a cockpit. You sit in the water while playing it, and the sound goes through the bottom of the instrument into the water. Native Africans have — it’s claimed — traditionally used this kind of drum to call the dolphins, which then swim in and bring them fish!

BRISTOL: You’ve been quoted as saying that whales are more profound than humans are. Did you intend to imply that they’re more intelligent?

NOLLMAN: I’m not sure they’re smarter, but I believe there’s a greater telepathic potential in the huge creatures. When I’m around one, I feel that it’s in touch with me somehow. There’s a being there . . . very alert and creative. Now not all of the 12 species of whales I’ve worked with were really exciting, but during encounters with some of the larger ones, I’ve had definite feelings of psychic connection: The experience was almost like having an eye looking around inside my head.

BRISTOL: I take it you think whales are pretty special creatures.

NOLLMAN: Definitely. Whales have put a lot of people in touch with the fact that the whole world is a living being, of which we’re a part — along with those giant mammals. By awakening people to that understanding, whales have been effective ambassadors for the earth. That’s why it’s so good that they’re around and why so many folks have put out so much energy in trying to save them.

BRISTOL: Do you plan more whale research in the future?

NOLLMAN: We’ve been working with ocean-going mammals for four years, but never for more than three weeks at a stretch. It’s time now for me to make a permanent commitment. As you know, we’re searching for a house — which we’d use as a studio — in a location suitable for marine research. We hope to formulate a five-year project, and our favored site would be somewhere in the San Juan Islands, near your home.

BRISTOL: Do you have any suggestions for readers of this column who might like to open up lines of musical communication with other species?

NOLLMAN: Well, there are many levels upon which to approach the matter. I mean, you can do something as ordinary as playing the harmonica with your dog! Overall, I think the best course of action — at least for most people — is not so much to find particular animals to converse with, but simply to live harmoniously with all forms of life by “tuning” themselves to the music of the world around them.

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