Monday, February 9, 2009

The Musical Mosquito

Like many string musicians, I have a second instrument that I use in extreme conditions. Fluctuations in weather such as heat and humidity can wreak havoc on delicate wooden instruments causing such headaches as open seams, cracks, and changes in sound. The viola that I play for our outdoor performances was actually my sister's viola all through high school. It's sturdy enough to weather the outdoors. The trade-off is the sound quality. It's not great. It has become affectionately known in the viola section as “The Mosquito.” It turns out, though, that being compared to a mosquito is not the musical insult that it once was. Research out of Cornell University shows that mosquitoes are quite the musical insects.

Mosquitoes have an irritating hum that is produced by the beating of their wings. Cornell researchers have found that male and female mosquitoes of a particular breed produce different pitches. The female “sings” a G while the male produces a D. Together they make the interval of a fifth.

Before I go any farther, let me explain what I'm talking about. An interval is the distance between two notes. Examples of fifths are C to G, G to D, D to A, and A to E. Fifths are important. In rock music, fifths often take the form of “power chords” played by the guitar. They also provide the skeleton for chord structure of tonal classical music. In the development of harmony, they were the first interval that was deemed acceptable besides the unison and octave, coming into use at the time of Gregorian Chant. Violinists, violists, and cellists all tune their strings in fifths.

The interesting thing about the mosquitoes is that when the researchers isolated a male and female and brought them close to each other, they adjusted their pitch and tuned to each other, only mating when the interval was so perfectly in tune that it produced an overtone. This fascinates me. The potential applications in the fight against mosquito-transmitted diseases such as malaria and yellow fever are terribly important, for sure, but I also think the research could lead to new discoveries in music, particularly in biomusicology which is the study of music from a biologic perspective. Many elements of music can be traced to nature, it will be interesting to see if any music researchers look further into this discovery.

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