Thu. Feb 29th, 2024
Ecosystems and music - Parks Blog

Not sure what exactly “ecological integrity” means? Today’s post by park biologist Shannon McGaffey explains how ecological integrity is like music.

Synergy: the creation of a whole that is greater than the sum of the individual parts

If you are listening to a symphony, you are not listening to two violins, a piano, three flutes, etc. music, an art that transcends the realms of spirituality. Music naturally generates measurable energy, but it also produces energy beyond that, an energy that humans can feel, but simply cannot grasp or understand.

Maybe that’s why it’s so special to humans. Music is omnipresent, everywhere. It is not strange or unattainable. It is one of the most accessible means to feel that multiplication of energy that we believe surpasses us. Not only can we hear it and feel it, but we can also do it. Without realizing it, humans are producing these same energetic patterns in social, political, psychological and spiritual dimensions.

And of course, this energy synergy occurs continually in nature.

When an orchestra plays a piece of music, the players, the notes, and the timing are in place. There are style cues that help everyone convey a certain mood, but the real “magic” happens when all of these instruments start playing together.

An ecological symphony


The energy created through music can be synonymous with that of an ecosystem in its natural state. All species play certain roles, such as instruments, and the energy cycle in the ecosystem is greater than the sum of individual animals and plants, such as music. In ecology, this is called processes.

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A natural rhythm

Timing in music often follows patterns that are also found throughout the natural world. Environmentalists have theorized that there is a more efficient pattern for dividing energy. This pattern is key for things like getting oxygen from your lungs to your toes, or for tree roots to reach as much soil, nutrients, and water as possible.

Not only that, but this pattern is everywhere. The pattern of tree leaves is similar to the pattern of neurons in the brain, which is similar to patterns found in space. Curiously, energy is always divided in the same way, between 1/3 and 1/4 of a whole.

In music, almost all beats are 3/4 (count: 1-2-3), 4/4 (count 1-2-3-4), or a combination of both. The emphasis is always placed on the first half. The third beat in the case of 4/4 timing has the second greatest emphasis, and the other beats have the least emphasis (see below).

musical time signatureCommon musical timing arrangements (S=strong, W=weak, M=medium)

When we begin to chain these rhythm patterns, one after another, it creates a continuation of energetic ups and downs over time. Energetically, our lives can also be defined by a continuous pattern of energetic rise and fall over time. Seasons are an obvious example. People experience hormonal ups and downs monthly.

predatory prey chart

An ecosystem experiences energetic increases or high vibrations regarding fire patterns and the subsequent release of nutrients (allowing for the next energetic cycle). Predator-prey relationships follow a similar trend.

The integrity of ecosystems.

MacGregor Point – Piping Plovers

In ecosystem management, ecological integrity can be compared to letting members of an orchestra play the instruments they know how to play best. This allows the rise and fall of the music to occur synchronously and ultimately have an energy that is greater than the sum of the individual instrumental noises.

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If we followed this theme, we would let the actors of the ecosystem be, so that they can produce an energy mass that will ultimately progress and be projected over time. This is where doing less is more.

So what happens if the flute player stops playing for a while?

Even worse: what if he stops playing forever?


If we are lucky, there may be a different person or species who can still play the flute, but they will never be as good.

What if we added a new instrument to the orchestra?

What if we added 20 new instruments to the orchestra? In practice, you would know that they would “take over” most of the orchestra, by sheer noise level. Energetically, it would be really overwhelming.

phragmitesInvasive species dominate native species, displacing them and unbalancing ecosystems.

In nature the same thing happens when external species are introduced into an ecosystem.

What would happen if we poured cement into the body of a piano or broke its keys?

We are literally stopping the process that allows music to play. What will happen to the other instruments that depend on the piano to maintain rhythm?

We’ve poured enough cement into our natural pianos and broken plenty of keys. We have removed the flutes from the orchestra and introduced 20 banjos at a time. What music do you listen to now?

Parks are the most complete orchestras of the natural world

Our goal is to keep them that way, and where they have been broken, to help repair the damage. Protecting intact systems is the easy part.

Esker Lakes LandscapeParks and protected areas play a crucial role in safeguarding our biodiversity.

Restoring broken systems is more difficult. It takes time, sometimes decades, trial and error and perseverance. The first step is to find answers to what is really wrong and what will make things right again. Taking actions and operating based on that information is the last step and sometimes all we can do.

Sometimes you just have to step back and hope that you can restore your actors, in their natural abundance and processes on your own.

That’s what it means to maintain and improve ecological integrity.