"There is Music in Every Sound": Thoreau's Modernist Understanding of Music

"There is Music in Every Sound": Thoreau's Modernist Understanding of Music

Jannika Bock

On August 17, 1841, Thoreau sails on the North River late at night, listening to the sounds of nature, the sounds of "rocks - and trees - and beasts" (PJ1 321).1 From time to time, he plays his flute – as a response to the music he hears. The following day, Thoreau writes in his Journal: "Unpremeditated music is the true gage which measures the current of our thoughts - the very undertow of our life's stream" (ibid). To Thoreau, music is of utmost importance, the very essence of life itself. According to him, music links humankind to nature, to the universal divine, and it offers to those who listen closely the potential for transcendence.

Thoreau's concept of music, however, differs immensely from the conventional understanding of music in the 19th century. For Thoreau, music that can become "the very undertow of our life's stream," as the Journal entry states, has to fulfill one requirement: it has to be unpremeditated, created without intention, without deliberation, a mere accidental act. Concert halls cannot serve as the origin for this kind of music. A symphony follows a well known structure. Every sound is planned in advance, notated in the score and practiced by the musicians prior to performance. Even though Thoreau never clearly condemns the kind of music that could be heard at the Boston Symphony and other concert halls, he openly prefers the sounds of nature he finds in his immediate surrounding.2

In nature, sounds are neither planned nor structured according to some organizing principle, they simply happen. There are always unpremeditated. By aligning these sounds – which others might refer to as noise – with music, Thoreau broadens the definition of music considerably and paves the way for modern composers such as John Cage, who makes the so-called noise an integral part of his compositions. In this paper, I will show what kind of environmental sounds Thoreau regards as music and how he defines the term "music" for himself. I will also introduce the requirements Thoreau believes one has to fulfill to hear music in nature's sounds and what kind of effects they can have on the attentive listener. In the last section of this paper, I will briefly explain why Thoreau cares about music at all.

Nature's Music

In American Transcendentalism, seeing is commonly regarded as the most essential sense. Emerson's writings are filled with allusions to vision: to him, light stands for truth, and seeing generally means gaining insight, most notably symbolized in his famous image of the "transparent eyeball" (Emerson 39). In contrast to Emerson, Thoreau, however, does not solely rely on vision. Something "purely visionary" is "disruptive" to him (J7 61). The other senses, most significantly the auditory sense, are just as vital to him. When Thoreau retreats into the wilderness, he observes nature and listens to its sounds.

During his many walks through the woods of Concord and the neighboring towns, he pays close attention to nature's music: the creaking of crickets, the baying of dogs and the murmuring of rivers. Thoreau finds beauty in these sounds. To him, "Nature makes no noise. The howling storm - the rustling leaf - the pattering rain - are no disturbance, There is an essential and unexplored harmony in them" (PJ1 13). Unlike the majority of his contemporaries, who visit the great concert halls to hear what they call music, Thoreau retreats into the wilderness to do exactly the same. He remarks in his Journal: "I heard from time to time of oratorio's concerts operas in distant temples but attended none of them - but this was my oratorio when my steel hoe plate struck against a pebble - and vibrated some chord of nature" (Fall-Winter 1845-1846, PJ2 130).3

In Thoreau's eyes, concert music suffers from an over-cultivation; it has been domesticated. It has lost its spontaneity, vitality and – most importantly – its affinity with life, i.e. nature. In Thoreau's understanding, nature is wild, beautiful and good, and its sounds have the same qualities. They are unpremeditated, often very simple and primitive, but also always appealingly unpolished. As Kenneth Rhoads has pointed out, Thoreau liked those sounds which possessed "a wildness which corresponded both to his own nature and to that aspect of physical nature with which he felt most empathy" (Rhoads 317). By favoring atmospheric sounds and claiming that "music is not in the Tune - [but] ... in the sound" (PJ5 146), Thoreau – albeit with different reasoning – makes a case for the same sound material modern composers such as Cage would use a century later.

On the evening of August 31, 1851, Thoreau is by himself, walking through the woods. There are no audible disturbances by other humans; he only hears the sounds of nature. In his Journal, he writes: "Every sound is music now" (PJ4 23). Just as Cage, Thoreau has an unprejudiced aesthetics of music, without hierarchies, without any rules for dismissal of some sounds. He regards everything as music. On this particular evening, Thoreau is – metaphorically and literally speaking – wrapped in nature and its music. This image of being completely surrounded, almost enveloped, by nature's music hints at Thoreau's multi-sensual understanding of sounds. Music cannot only be heard, but it can also be felt. It vibrates. When describing the sounds he hears, Thoreau often uses the metaphor of a harp. On October 28, 1852, he, for instance, writes: "Each tree is a harp which resounds all night-though some have but a few leaves left to flutter & hum" (PJ5 387).

The Telegraph Harp

A harp, just like any other string instrument, relies for the production of sound on the vibration of its strings. The close relationship between the vibration of the harp and the sounds of nature becomes most obvious in the case of the telegraph wire Thoreau repeatedly refers to. During one of his many nature walks, on September 3, 1851, Thoreau passes underneath the recently erected telegraph wire (which connects Concord with Boston), and he hears for the first time the tune the wire produces when shaking in the wind. He writes: "As I went under the new telegraph wire I heard it vibrating like a harp high over head" (PJ4 35). Thoreau's indulgence in the sounds of the telegraph wire is a very good example of his longing for unpremeditated music. The melodies produced by the vibrating wire have an accidental character; they are dependent on the wind, and the wire was not designed to create music. Thoreau writes: "Thus as ever the finest uses of things are the accidental. Mr Morse did not invent this music" (PJ4 280).

A couple of weeks later, Thoreau notes in his Journal another instance of him listening to the chord vibrating in the wind: "Yesterday & today the stronger winds of Autumn have begun to blow & the telegraph harp has sounded loudly ... I put my ear to one of the posts, and it seemed to me as if every pore of the wood was filled with music" (PJ4 89-90). Here, in this case, Thoreau hears and feels the music created by vibration. He perceives the sounds of the wire with more than just one sense.

In his later entries, Thoreau almost exclusively calls the vibrating wire "the telegraph harp" or even the "AEolian harp" (PJ4 75). The latter term is derived from Greek mythology, in which Aelos is the god of wind and the Aeolian harp a string instrument which is "played" by the wind. It is not surprising that Thoreau calls the tunes of the vibrating telegraph wire "Music Aeolian" (PJ4 279-280). As his Journal shows, especially the early entries between 1837 and 1844, Thoreau has an extremely high regard for Greek mythology. He repeatedly draws parallels or points to the culture of ancient Greece. By using terms such as "Aeolian music" he links his immediate surrounding to the long gone world of Greek mythology. Thoreau even says so explicitly: on January 9, 1853, after listening to the vibrating telegraph wire once again, he writes: "The Telegraph harp ... allies Concord to Athens & both to Elysium" (PJ5 436-7).4

Just in terms of how many times the "telegraph harp" gets mentioned in the Journal, no other artificial sound receives as much attention as the "AEolian harp." Between the fall of 1851 and the spring of 1854, Thoreau refers to the sounds of the telegraph wire at least a dozen times.5 There are three explanations for his extreme interest in the music of the "telegraph harp": Firstly, it satisfies Thoreau's longing for unpremeditated sounds, since its music can neither be anticipated nor planned. It is a result of nature's forces, a music of chance, a concept Cage, for example, later relied on extensively. Secondly, the vibrating telegraph wire exemplifies best Thoreau's multi-sensual approach to music. The vibration of the wire is not only audible, but it can also be felt and – even though Thoreau does not explicitly mention it – it can be seen. Thirdly, the vibration of the wire is caused by wind, and thus an artificially created sound is paired with a natural force that produces or enhances the original sound. This combination of nature and artificiality, one could even say technology, is one of the striking characteristics of Thoreau's very modernist understanding of what music is and foreshadows Cage's musical synthesis of nature and technology.6

Nature & Artificial Sounds

Many of Thoreau's references to sounds in his writings are of this kind: nature altering artificial sounds, transforming them from noise into music. Here is one example: on a warm summer night, with a bright full moon illuminating the world, Thoreau goes on a walk through the woods. All of a sudden, he hears some faint music carried to him by a breeze – most likely from a distant farm house. Thoreau writes in his Journal: "How sweet & encouraging it is to hear the sound of some artificial music from the midst of woods or from the top of a hill" (PJ3 267). The music Thoreau hears is not the clear strain of a flute or a human voice; it is the music created through the interaction between nature and the aforementioned melody, the latter altered by nature. It is exactly this kind of alteration that creates the music Thoreau praises. It is completely unpremeditated, an unpredictable result of nature.

Throughout his writings, Thoreau names two ways in which nature can modify an artificially created sound such as the tune of a flute or a human voice7: first and foremost through distance, and second with the help of an echo. According to Thoreau, "All sound heard at the greatest possible distance produces one and the same effect, a vibration of the universal lyre" (W 168).

Because of the distance, sounds have to travel through a natural soundscape to reach the listener's ears. During these travels, nature affects the original sound, changes its tone, pitch etc. At the same time, the traveling sound affects nature, causing, for instance, a vibration of leafs on a tree or a stirring among birds - and it is this combination that Thoreau calls "a vibration of the universal lyre." He writes: "It is the song of the villages heard with the song of the birds" (J7 307). Another example of the effect of distance on artificial sounds appears in Thoreau's Journal written during his two year stay at Walden: in the evening hours, he repeatedly hears the bells of the surrounding towns. But, as Thoreau writes, "It is not the mere sound of the bell but the humming in the air that enchants me" (PJ4 142); it is the modification of the ringing of the bells through nature's soundscape that catches his attention. Thoreau writes: "There comes to me a melody which the air has strained. - which has conversed with every leaf and needle of the woods" (PJ4 142-3).8

The echo has a similar effect: it also changes the original sound, turns it into music. In Walden, Thoreau writes: "The echo is, to some extent, an original sound, and therein is the magic and charm of it. It is not merely a repetition ... but partly the voice of the wood" (W 168-9). In his Journal, speaking of reflections, the visual equivalent of echoes, Thoreau says something similar: "Nature avoids repeating herself" (J10 96); the reflection – or the echo – is "fairer" (J6 17) and "richer" (J7 20) than the original vision or sound. Sometimes Thoreau retreats into the deep woods to play his flute. He listens for an echo of his tunes to find out how nature affects the melodies he plays. In one of such moments Thoreau exclaims: "the wild and the tame are one ... What a delicious sound!" (J7 112).

Again, it is the modification of an artificially created sound through nature that makes the former beautiful. It is only through the natural environment – whether that means an echo, the vastness of a landscape or a natural force such as wind or frost9 – that true and beautiful music has the potential to emerge from an artificial sound source. By themselves, sounds of human activity and industry, such as "the screeching of the locomotive and rumbling of the cars," are disturbing to Thoreau (J7 21). In this aspect, he significantly differs from modernist composers such as Cage. Cage does not need nature to affect an artificial sound in order to regard it as music. To Cage and some of his contemporaries, every technological sound is music.

Perpetual Music

After having spent countless hours in nature, listening to the sounds of his environment, Thoreau is convinced that "music is perpetual, and only hearing is intermittent" (J9 244-5). He repeatedly speaks of a "stream of sound" (J9 191), an infinite environmental music, without beginning or end. Like Cage, Thoreau thinks that the world is filled with music, audible at any given moment. "It is," he writes, however, only "the exception that we see and hear" (J8 44-5), meaning that we simply fail to hear nature's perpetual musical melody. On May 1, 1857, Thoreau walks past the mill brook, listening to the croak of a toad. He is sure that his fellow townsmen fail to hear this small sound of nature and instead only attend to the noises created by themselves. Thoreau writes: "The bell was ringing for town meeting, and every one heard it, but none heard this older and more universal bell, rung by more native Americans all the land over" (J9 349). Even though Thoreau is aware that most people, sometimes even none, do not hear the music in nature, he is convinced that everybody has the ability to detect nature's tune and its musical beauty.

In his writings, he claims that one only has to have "clear and unprejudiced ears," like the ones of children, ears that have not yet been put to any misuse. In contrast to grown-ups, who despise "those cheap & simple sounds ... because their ears are dull & debauched," young kids have ears which are "fresh sound attentive & percipient" (PJ5 83). They can hear music in what adults would call noise.10 On June 9, 1852, after contemplating nature as a site for religious activity, Thoreau discusses how a child loves to strike on a tin pan and how he enjoys the sounds thus created. The child indulges in his "music," whereas Thoreau has difficulties appreciating the musical quality of this sound. He laments: "Ah that I were so much a child that I could unfailingly draw music from a quart pot" (PJ5 83).11 Thoreau wants to return to the impartialness towards sounds and music of his childhood days. He believes that "sound and still youthful senses, not enervated by luxury, hear music in the wind and rain and running water" (J9 244-5). In his writings, he, therefore, repeatedly craves for an "innocent" (PJ2 159) and not "a discriminating ear" (W 320). The question, however, is: how can Thoreau – or any being for that matter – who fails "to draw music from a quart top" and lacks the "innocent ear," clear and purify his senses to "hear the notes of music in the air"? (PJ2 241).

Requirements

In his writings, Thoreau tries to answer this question. First of all, he says, an important requirement is a right state of mind: an ever existing readiness to pay attention to all sounds in nature. Thoreau is convinced that "Nature does not cast pearls before swine. There is just as much beauty ... as we are prepared to appreciate, - not a grain more" (J11 285). Only those who focus their attention on nature's music will hear it. Thoreau, therefore, demands of himself "to be always on the alert" (PJ4 55), to be prepared to take in any sound that may occur in his environment. He continuously practices a focused awareness by chronicling what he hears. Towards the end of his Journal writing, Thoreau frequently includes onomatopoeic words to describe the sounds of animals he hears.12

Second, to hear music in nature's sounds the senses have to be – as mentioned earlier – "clear and purified." Thoreau repeatedly reminds himself of keeping his mind and senses unoccupied. On September 13, 1852, he, for instance, writes: "I must walk more with free senses" (my emphasis, PJ5 343). "Free" is the important word in this phrase. Thoreau wants himself to be ready to perceive whatever sight or – in the current discussion more important – sound may present itself to him. This idea of being absolutely open to perceive his surrounding points back to Thoreau's longing for unpremeditated music, i.e. a music that cannot be anticipated, only perceived. It is important to Thoreau that the listener is completely open-minded. He also has to be undistracted, because any distraction, which Thoreau calls a defect, "cheapens the experience" (PJ5 413). Economic needs and desires are the kind of distraction Thoreau discusses most often. Such an "occupied ear" (PJ3 333) comes to the telegraph to hear "the price of cotton and flour" and not "the things which are priceless, of absolute truth and beauty" (Week 177), which to Thoreau are, of course, the music of the vibrating wire.

Thoreau demands a clear mind, focused not on profane matters, but on nature itself. He asks himself, and also his imagined readers: "Be ever so little distracted - your thoughts so little confused - Your engagements so few - your attention so free your existence so mundane - that in all places & in all hours you can hear the sound of crickets" (PJ3 291). By concentrating again and again on the smallest sounds in nature, Thoreau practices this kind of undistracted attention.13

There are, however, some obstacles which we need to overcome in order to "walk ... with free senses" and an open mind: first, it is immensely difficult to push aside all possible distractions. During his trip to Maine, Thoreau catches himself associating the sounds of nature with human industry. Even in the remote region of the Maine woods, where settlements are a long distance off, Thoreau cannot free himself of ascribing human activity to the noises he hears. He writes:

The waterfalls which I heard were not without their dams and mills to my imagination, - and several times I found that I had been regarding the steady rushing sound of the wind from over the woods beyond the rivers as that of a train of cars, - the cars at Quebec. Our minds anywhere, when left to themselves, are always thus busily drawing conclusions from false premises. (MW 203)14

Thoreau immediately finds an explanation for his behavior: he says that he failed to "distinctly attend" to the sound (ibid). Whereas this difficulty in perceiving the melodies of nature, i.e. the lack of an undistracted focus, can be overcome – regardless of how long that process may take –, there is no solution to the other problem: with the coming of age the senses begin to lose their perceptive powers. In the later Journal entries, as Thoreau gets older, his senses become weaker and weaker. On July 16, 1851, he laments the loss of his perceptive powers: "In youth before I lost any of my senses - I can remember that I was all alive - and inhabited my body with inexpressible satisfaction ... This earth was the most glorious musical instrument, and I was audience to its strains" (PJ3 305-6).

Effects

As long as Thoreau still hears the beautiful music in nature's sounds, it has great effects on him. Best exemplified are these effects in his Journal entry on August 3, 1852: Thoreau is at his house, most likely sitting at his desk in the attic, and through the open window to the East he hears the creaking of a cricket and a melody played on a distant piano. Only "few uninterrupted [piano] strains" reach him through the trees. The combination of the creaking of the cricket and the melody played on the distant piano, altered by the landscape which lies between the player of the tune and Thoreau, puts him in a state of ecstasy. He writes:

I am affected.– What coloring variously fair & intense our life admits of–! How a thought will mould & paint it! Impressed by some vague vision as it were - elevated into a more glorious sphere of life - we no longer know this - we can deny its existence - We say we are enchanted perhaps. But what I am impressed by is the fact that this enchantment is no delusion - So far as truth is concerned it is a fact such as what we call our actual existence - but it is a far higher & more glorious fact. It is evidence of such a sphere - of such possibilities - It is truth & reality that affect me. A thrumming of piano strings beyond the gardens & through the elms - at length the melody steals into my being - I know not when it began to occupy me - By some fortunate coincidence of thought or circumstance I am attuned to the universe - I am fitted to hear - my being moves in a sphere of melody - my fancy and imagination are excited to an inconceivable degree - This is no longer the dull earth on which I stood - It is possible to live a grander life here - already the steed is stamping - the knights are prancing - Already our thoughts bid a proud farewell to the so called actual life & its humble glories - Now this is the verdict of a soul in health. But the soul diseased says that its own vision & life a - lone is true & sane. (PJ5 271-2)

In this excerpt, the main and in Thoreau's writings often re-appearing effects of nature's music become visible.

First and foremost, it puts Thoreau in a state of ecstasy. As he says, he is "affected"; at other moments, he writes, the music "intoxicates me" (PJ4 279). Listening to the melodies of nature, Thoreau is overwhelmed by emotions; nature's music becomes "a tonic to the soul" (PJ1 186). On December 31, 1853, he even states explicitly that "The contact of sound with a human ear ... is coincident with an ecstacy" (J6 39). In this state of ecstasy, "The sound soaks into [his] spirit" (J7 186), and he perceives the world around him more intensely.

Second, the music elevates Thoreau. He rises "to the height of [his] being" (PJ5 437). The music "lifts [him] up by the ears" (PJ1 314). These moments of elevation are clearly moments in which he reaches a state of transcendence. He sees things in a different light. Thoreau is able to perceive the world as it really is: suddenly, as the entry quoted above shows, there is "no delusion," only "truth & reality." He gains insight, he hears "the voice of eternal wisdom" (J9 365). Thoreau is able to differentiate between the material appearance of the world and the spiritual reality that lies behind it. The same happens on January 9, 1853: after passing underneath the telegraph wire and hearing its music once again, Thoreau writes, "A period - a semicolon at least is put to my previous & habitual ways of viewing things" (PJ5 436-7). This instance must also be understood as a moment in which he reaches a state of transcendence.

The third effect of nature's music on Thoreau is expressed in the phrase "I am attuned to the universe": by listening to the sounds of nature, he is not only aligned with nature, but also with the entire universe. He is "allied to the elements" (J7 186). Thoreau believes in the correspondence of nature, humankind and the underlying spirit. By being attuned to nature, he is in touch with humankind and the all-encompassing spirit. He suddenly understands the functioning of the world. The phrase "I am attuned to the universe" also hints at another, more far-reaching effect of music: it has the potential to erase the ego. The listener is immersed in the universe, in the divine spirit. During one of those moments of ecstasy in which personal identity is lost, Thoreau writes: "The field of my life becomes a boundless plain ... All meanness and trivialness disappear ... No particulars survive this expansion; persons do not survive it. In the light of this strain there is no thou nor I. We are actually lifted above ourselves" (J9 222).

Finally, music catapults his being, as Thoreau says in the Journal entry quoted above, "in a sphere of melody." Thoreau believed in the concept of sphere music, which was originated by Pythagoras and refers to the inaudible music caused by the movement of the celestial bodies. Whereas scholars of the 17th century reduced this concept to a mainly mathematical formula which relates to the proportions in the movement of the planets, Pythagoras and his contemporaries believed that there really existed a celestial music, which, however, could not be heard by humans. Interestingly, the Hindu practice Surat Shabd Yoga also uses the term "music of the spheres" and understands it as a synonym of Shabd, meaning the "Audible Life Stream." In light of Thoreau's extensive knowledge of Hindu texts and his repeated usage of the phrase "stream of sound" (J9 191), this parallel is quite interesting: "sphere music" not only draws a connection to ancient Greece, a connection Thoreau establishes, especially in the context of music, over and over again, but it also draws a connection with Hindu philosophy. This being lifted "in a sphere of melody" can be understood as another moment in which listening to nature's music puts Thoreau in a state of transcendence; this time, however, with a much clearer religious component.

Why does Thoreau listen?

Religious revelation is unquestionably one goal Thoreau is aiming at by listening to music within nature. He wants to discover the world's underlying harmony, nature's divine music. To Thoreau, music has the ability to transcend reality, and in the state of pure ecstasy, he is in a momentary unity with the universal soul. He gets in touch with the divine. He sees "into paradisaic regions" (J8 44). Since Thoreau held very eclectic religious beliefs, rather randomly mixing Hindu and Buddhist philosophy with Christian, or more precisely: Unitarian, ideology, it is not surprising that on some occasions nature's music "is God's voice - the divine breath audible" (PJ1 144) or "a message ... from heaven dropt" (PJ4 76), while it reminds Thoreau in other moments "of a passage of the Vedas" (Week 174), the religious scriptures of the Hindu tradition. Between the spring and the fall of 1850, Thoreau makes repeated references to cows, Hinduism's holy animal and symbol of the earth. He often speaks of the sounds the cows and the bells around their necks produce – a sound, which Thoreau regards as "celestial music" (PJ5 194).

The phrase "celestial music," often used by Thoreau to describe the sounds of nature, once again points to the idea of sphere music. Thoreau brings back the concept to its original meaning, claiming: "Music is the sound of the universal laws promulgated" (Week 175), i.e. the cosmic harmonies. As to Pythagoras, to Thoreau, the music of the spheres is not a pure mathematical concept but an existing melody. Thoreau, however, goes one step further: in his understanding, music is not only the sound of the universe, but it is also its audible governing principle. Music imposes "order and harmony upon nature - from it as a centre - the law is promulgated to the universe" (PJ1 248).

According to Thoreau, music "rule[s] and arrange[s]" the earth (PJ8 147). Therefore, music follows universal laws and creates them.15 It is cause and effect, beginning and ending, a perfect circle. Because music is the result of and the basis for the universe, the sounds of the environment serve Thoreau as a means to "become a witness ... to the order of the universe" (J9 216) and as an indicator of nature's – and by extension: the universe's – health. "All these sounds - the hum of insects at noon - the crowing of cocks in the morning - the baying of dogs at night - are the evidence of natures health or soundness" (PJ2 21). They proclaim the "soundness," the spiritual wholeness of the universe.16

Through music an understanding of nature and life itself becomes possible. Thoreau sensuously perceives the physical universe; he listens to its sounds, and by doing so, he has the possibility to gain access to the spiritual reality, which lays – according to Transcendentalist philosophy – behind its material manifestation. Thoreau writes: "to ask ourselves what music is - if we ponder this question it is soon changed to what are we?" (PJ1 480). In Thoreau's understanding, music triggers this inquiry and it provides the means to answer it: it gives access to the spiritual reality. Whoever pays attention to nature's music, will be "enable[d] ... to see all things" (ibid), to gain insight, to see life as it really is.17 Thus, in Thoreau's writings, not only the eye, as in Emerson's philosophy, but also the ear is an organ with which an understanding of the world and one's place in it become possible.


1 The Princeton edition of Thoreau's Journal will be abbreviated with the letters "PJ," followed by the number of the respective volume. "J" indicates a citation from the Bradford Torrey edition of the Journal. The other works by Thoreau will be quoted as "MW" (The Maine Woods), "RP" (Reform Papers), "W" (Walden) and "Week" (A Week on the Concord an Merrimack Rivers).

2 Thoreau writes in his Journal that nature's music "wears better than the opera" (J5 492); yet, he still sometimes attends concerts, praising, for instance, the "pure melody" of the clarionet (J10 296-7), and he also visits the opera in New York, especially during his later years (J7 76). Towards the end of his life, the opera becomes more important to Thoreau, because, as he writes, "In proportion as a man has a poor ear for music, or loses his ear for it, he is obliged to go far for it or fetch it from far, and pay a great price for such as he can hear. Operas, ballet-singers, and the like only affect him. It is like the difference between a young and healthy appetite and the appetite of an epicure, between a sweet crust and a mock-turtle soup" (J12 357).

3 Thoreau's outlook on music is a very democratic one, since everybody – regardless of social status and financial resources – can hear nature's music. As Thoreau writes in his Journal, "One will lose no music by not attending the oratorios & operas. The really inspiring melodies are cheap & universal –& are as audible to the poor man's son as to the rich mans. Listening to the harmonies of the universe is not allied to dissipation ... No heavenly strain is lost to the ear that is fitted to hear for want of money - or opportunity" (PJ3 359). During a bleak winter, in which his Journal entries testify of a rather depressed Thoreau, he writes less enthusiastically on the same subject: "Some desert the field and go into winter quarters in the city. They attend the oratorios, while the only music that we countrymen hear is the squeaking of the snow under our boots" (J6 85).

4 Thoreau was so much intrigued by the Aeolian harp that he built one for himself, which is now in the possession of the Concord Antiquarian Society.

5 At one point, he calls the telegraph wire the "American lyre" (PJ8 3). This is significant: it alludes to the American-ness of the "telegraph harp." The American Samuel F. B. Morse (1791-1872) invented the electric telegraph. Therefore, the telegraph wire is a genuine American "instrument." For Thoreau, who – just as the other Transcendentalists – struggled to find and create an American culture, especially literature, the American-ness of the "telegraph harp" was of utmost importance.

6 It is not an equal appreciation of nature and technology, as Mehring argues in Sphere Melodies, but nature's modification of technology and its sounds that appeals to Thoreau (Mehring 189).

7 Starting in the mid-1850s Thoreau seems to regard the human voice and humanly produced music as natural sound sources and praises them repeatedly (see, for instance, J8 347), whereas he clearly classifies them as artificial in his earlier entries, which are referred to here.

8 To Thoreau, even the noise of a factory can be musical, if it is "far enough off" (PJ6 155). He writes further: "Thus the sounds of human industry and activity - the roar of cannon, blasting of rocks, whistling of locomotives, rattling of carts, tinkering of artisans, and voices of men - may sound to some distant ear like an earth-song and the creaking of crickets" (J10 107). Sometimes, however, distance works the other way around, changing natural sounds in a manner that they resemble the noises of human activity: "It [croaking of a large number of distant frogs] comes vorne on the breeze from north over the Bedford meadows a quarter of a mile off, filling the air. It is like the rattling of a wagon along some highway, or more like a distant train on a railroad, or else of many rills emptying in, or more yet like the sound of a factory, and it comes with an echo which makes it seem yet more distant and universal" (J10 348).

9 See, for instance, Journal entry on January 21, 1853: "Even the cracking of a wagon in a frost night has music in it which allies it to the highest & purest strain of the muse" (PJ5 450).

10 Referring to adults, Thoreau writes: "Some ears never hear this sound ... Is it not because they have so long attended to other sounds?" (PJ3 291). He thus claims that hearing conventions prevent grown-ups from hearing the music in from what they call noise, simply because they have never learned to appreciate those sounds.

11 Apart from children, Thoreau believes that those who he regards as holy, healthy and sane can hear music in nature's sound. See PJ1 144, PJ1 303 and PJ3 275, respectively. In his essay "The Service," Thoreau also claims that only the brave hear and live in concord with the sounds of the universe (RP 11).

12 On August 4, 1854, he, for instance, notes in his Journal: "I hear the pigeon woodpecker still –wickoff-wickoff-wickoff-wickoff" (PJ8 251). Frank Mehring has rightfully pointed out that Thoreau – by using onomatopoeic words – turns language into an acoustic material which completely lacks any semantic meaning and is a composition technique later also used by Cage.

13 Thoreau believes that the right kind of alert attention and perceptive readiness can be practiced. He even asks himself: "Will not faith and expectation make to itself ears at length" (PJ1 365).

14These associations could, however, also be read as a sign for humans' advanced interferences with nature. Thoreau's relationship to technology is rather ambivalent: he sometimes praises and meets new inventions with curiosity, at other times he criticizes that "by means of railroads and steamboats and telegraphs, the country is denaturalized" (J6 108).

15 To Thoreau, music follows nature's laws but breaks them at the same time and constitutes new ones: "Nothing is so truly bounded and obedient to law as music, yet nothing so surely breaks all petty and narrow bonds" (J6 100). Music has the potential to transcend the known, and it is therefore an example of Thoreau's concept of extravagance. In his writings, Thoreau repeatedly demands extravagance of himself and his readers. The etymological basis of the term can be traced back to Medieval Latin, bringing together the words "extra" and the present participle of the verb "vagar," which means "to wander." In its original meaning, "extravagance" refereed to the state of wandering beyond, of crossing borders, of exceeding limits. In Thoreau's understanding, music does exactly that: it goes beyond the known.

16 Music can also reveal his own condition: in his Journal Thoreau writes that listening to the sounds of the environment, he "feels his blood flow in his veins" (PJ1 186).

17 This is possible because music is metaphorically "the light which colors all landscape" (PJ1 480).

Works Cited

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