The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Nature’s Oldest Mandolin: The Poetic Science of How Cicadas Sing

Nature’s Oldest Mandolin: The Poetic Science of How Cicadas Sing

“The use of music,” Richard Powers wrote, “is to remind us how short a time we have a body” — a truth nowhere more bittersweet than in the creature whose body is the oldest unchanged musical instrument on Earth: a tiny mandolin silent for most of its existence, then sonorous with a fleeting symphony of life before the final silence.

Each summer, cicadas arrive by the billions with their strange red eyes, their mysterious prime-shaped periodic cycles, and their haunting nocturnal emergence, sudden and synchronized. For years they have lived underground, soft milky-white nymphs nursed by endosymbiotic bacteria through their long helpless infancy. And then, as if by some divine signal, when the soil temperature reaches exactly 17.9 °C (64 °F), an obsidian exoskeleton encases their bodies in a flash to accompany them through the brief weeks of maturity as they rise from the underworld in singing search of a mate.

In consonance with pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell’s insistence that “every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” we now have a formula for predicting when this massive music festival of yearning will begin: E = (19.465 – t)/0.5136, where E denotes the emergence start date in May and t is the average April temperatures in Celsius.

By early June, they have all emerged, more of them than all the humans who have ever lived; by late July, they have all died.

Transformation of the periodical Cicada Septemdecim. Illustration by Lillie Sullivan, 1898. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

While annual cicada species cover the globe, periodical cicadas — the seven known species of the genus Magicicada, which emerge from the ground every 13 or 17 years in broods defined by geography and periodicity — are native only to North America. The English were staggered to encounter them when they first arrived. In 1633, the the governor of the young Plymouth Colony in New England marveled at the “numerous company of Flies which were like for bigness unto wasps or Bumble-Bees” that rose from the ground to feast on the trees and “made such a constant yelling noise as made the woods ring of them, and ready to deafen the hearers.”

Cicada by Edward Donovan, 1800. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Despite having no voice — no vocal chords, no lungs — cicadas are the loudest male chorus on Earth, their courtship serenades approaching the decibel level of a jet engine thanks to some of the most extraordinary acoustics in nature.

The body of a male cicada resembles a wood instrument. On each side of the hollow abdomen is a tymbal — a mesh of miniature ribs woven into a hard membrane, strummed whenever the singer flexes his synchronous flight muscles. Unlike locusts, which make sound by rubbing their legs against their wings and with which they were long conflated — it was only in the tenth edition of his Systema Naturae that Linnaeus named the cicada as a different insect — cicadas sing the way humans do: with their whole body.

Art from A Monograph of Oriental Cicadidæ by William Lucas Distant, 1889. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Some find their music menacing, some mesmerizing. The Greeks considered it almost divine. When Pythagoras discovered the mathematics of harmony, a cicada sitting on a harp came to symbolize the science of music. Homer’s highest praise for orators was to compare them to cicadas. Anacreon, celebrated as the finest lyric poet of his civilization, reverenced them in verse:

Sweet prophet of summer, loved of the Muses,
Beloved of Phoebus who gave thee thy shrill song,
Old age does not wear upon thee;
Thou art earth-born, musical, impassive, without blood.
Thou art almost a god.

Epochs later, Lord Byron — poet laureate of the grandiose, otherwise blind to the grandeur of smallness — rhapsodized about these tiny “people of the pine” that “make their summer lives one ceaseless song.”

But no one has written more poetically about the biological reality of the cicada than the artist, naturalist, philosopher, entomologist, and educator Anna Botsford Comstock (September 1, 1854–August 24, 1930) — the forgotten pioneer who planted the seed for the youth climate action movement by introducing nature study to school curricula at the dawn of the twentieth century, making wonder a public good.

Anna Botsford Comstock circa 1900

In 1903, Comstock wrote and illustrated Ways of the Six-Footed (public library | public domain) — a lyrical field guide to the world of insects, doing for entomology what Carl Sagan would do for astronomy two generations later. Celebrating the commonest male cicada of summer as the greatest of “the insect troubadours,” Comstock writes:

This musician… is an interesting-looking fellow, with a stout body and broad, transparent wings quite ornately veined… The cicada whose song is the most familiar to us is the “dog-day harvest-fly” or “Lyreman.” It resembles the seventeen-year species, except that it is larger and requires only two or three years in the immature state, below ground, instead of seventeen. The Lyreman when seen from above is black, with dull-green scroll ornamentation; below he is covered with white powder. He lives in trees; hidden beneath the leaves, this arboreal wooer sends forth a high trill, which seems to steep the senses of the listener in the essence of summer noons. If you chance to find a Lyreman fallen from his perch and take him in your hand, he will sing and you can feel his body vibrate with the sound. But it will remain a mystery where the musical instrument is situated, for it is nowhere visible to the uninitiated. However, if you place him on his back, you may see directly behind the base of each hind leg a circular plate, nearly a quarter of an inch in diameter; beneath each of these plates is a cavity across which is stretched a partition made up of three distinct kinds of membranes for the modulation of the tone; at the top of each cavity is a stiff, folded membrane which acts as a drumhead; but it is set In vibration by muscles instead of drumsticks, and these muscles move so rapidly that we cannot distinguish the separate vibrations. Thus, our Lyreman is provided with a very complicated pair of kettledrums, which he plays with so much skill that his music sounds more like that of a mandolin than of a drum.


Surely a new interest attaches to this summer-day song when we realize that it has pleased the human ear since the dim age of Homer. The cicada’s kettledrums are perhaps the only musical instruments now in use that have remained unchanged through a thousand centuries since they were first mentioned.

Cicada speciosa by Charles Dessalines d’Orbigny, 1861. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Complement with the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on music as a property of the universe and this lovely vintage parable about another music-making insect, then revisit Anna Botsford Comstock’s beautiful meditation on winter trees as a portal to aliveness.

Published May 5, 2024




Filed Under

View Full Site

The Marginalian participates in the and affiliate programs, designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to books. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book from a link here, I receive a small percentage of its price, which goes straight back into my own colossal biblioexpenses. Privacy policy. (TLDR: You're safe — there are no nefarious "third parties" lurking on my watch or shedding crumbs of the "cookies" the rest of the internet uses.)