Feature Stories

He Jams with Cicadas: NJIT Professor Studies Bug Music

NJIT Professor David Rothenberg Improvising with cicadas.

David Rothenberg has been playing his clarinet with cicadas, billions of which emerged this week from the ground to sing, mate and die.

Rothenberg, a professor of philosophy and music at NJIT, is fascinated by how bugs use sound to communicate. So the recent outbreak of the cicadas, after a 17-year gestation period, is music to his ears. He’s been traveling the country giving lectures on the symphonious bugs. 

This past weekend, Rothenberg spoke at the World Science Festival, held at the New York Botanical Garden. He discussed the three varieties of cicadas and what distinguishes their sounds. He also took time to jam with the bugs. The New York Times was on hand to video-tape his thoughts and performance.

Rothenberg also writes best-selling books. His new book, “Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise,” discusses how insect sound influenced human rhythm, dance and music. And he has studied how animals use sound to communicate in two previous books, “Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into the Mystery of Bird Song”  and “Thousand Mile Song”, which focused on whale song. In another book, “Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science and Evolution” (2011), he analyzed the evolutionary reasons that explain, or don’t explain, why beauty exists in the animal world.

Many NJIT professors combine effective teaching with interesting research, and the Harvard-educated Rothenberg is one of them. His music and technology classes are popular with students. Additionally he directs NJIT’s Laptop Orchestra, which performs publicly and in 2011 released its first CD.  Some of the students in the orchestra are now pursuing careers in electronic music.

Rothenberg uses his research on animal sounds to inform his teaching, asking his students “to experiment with the manipulation of all kinds of sounds, and to LISTEN ever more carefully to as much in our world as they can,” he says.

“I use all of my animal music research in my classes,” adds Rothenberg, who teaches in the Humanities Department. “I always encourage my students to expand their sense of what music can contain.”

In his view, NJIT is the perfect place for a polymath to teach. “NJIT has been an ideal place to do my work,” he says, “because I have been encouraged to move the edge between art and science, sound and nature, music and technology.”

By Robert Florida