THE SONG OF THE CIGALE
Where I live I can capture five species of Cigale, the two principal
species being the common Cigale and the variety which lives on the
flowering ash. Both of these are widely distributed and are the only
species known to the country folk. The larger of the two is the common
Cigale. Let me briefly describe the mechanism with which it produces its
On the under side of the body of the male, i
mediately behind the
posterior limbs, are two wide semicircular plates which slightly overlap
one another, the right hand lying over the left hand plate. These are
the shutters, the lids, the dampers of the musical-box. Let us remove
them. To the right and left lie two spacious cavities which are known in
Provencal as the chapels (_li capello_). Together they form the church
(_la gleiso_). Their forward limit is formed by a creamy yellow
membrane, soft and thin; the hinder limit by a dry membrane coloured
like a soap bubble and known in Provencal as the mirror (_mirau_).
The church, the mirrors, and the dampers are commonly regarded as the
organs which produce the cry of the Cigale. Of a singer out of breath
one says that he has broken his mirrors (_a li mirau creba_). The same
phrase is used of a poet without inspiration. Acoustics give the lie to
the popular belief. You may break the mirrors, remove the covers with a
snip of the scissors, and tear the yellow anterior membrane, but these
mutilations do not silence the song of the Cigale; they merely change
its quality and weaken it. The chapels are resonators; they do not
produce the sound, but merely reinforce it by the vibration of their
anterior and posterior membranes; while the sound is modified by the
dampers as they are opened more or less widely.
The actual source of the sound is elsewhere, and is somewhat difficult
for a novice to find. On the outer wall of either chapel, at the ridge
formed by the junction of back and belly, is a tiny aperture with a
horny circumference masked by the overlapping damper. We will call this
the window. This opening gives access to a cavity or sound-chamber,
deeper than the "chapels," but of much smaller capacity. Immediately
behind the attachment of the posterior wings is a slight protuberance,
almost egg-shaped, which is distinguishable, on account of its dull
black colour, from the neighbouring integuments, which are covered with
a silvery down. This protuberance is the outer wall of the
Let us cut it boldly away. We shall then lay bare the mechanism which
produces the sound, the _cymbal_. This is a small dry, white membrane,
oval in shape, convex on the outer side, and crossed along its larger
diameter by a bundle of three or four brown nervures, which give it
elasticity. Its entire circumference is rigidly fixed. Let us suppose
that this convex scale is pulled out of shape from the interior, so
that it is slightly flattened and as quickly released; it will
immediately regain its original convexity owing to the elasticity of the
nervures. From this oscillation a ticking sound will result.
Twenty years ago all Paris was buying a silly toy, called, I think, the
cricket or _cri-cri_. It was a short slip of steel fixed by one end to a
metallic base. Pressed out of shape by the thumb and released, it
yielded a very distressing, tinkling _click_. Nothing else was needed to
take the popular mind by storm. The "cricket" had its day of glory.
Oblivion has executed justice upon it so effectually that I fear I shall
not be understood when I recall this celebrated device.
The membranous cymbal and the steel cricket are analogous instruments.
Both produce a sound by reason of the rapid deformation and recovery of
an elastic substance--in one case a convex membrane; in the other a slip
of steel. The "cricket" was bent out of shape by the thumb. How is the
convexity of the cymbals altered? Let us return to the "church" and
break down the yellow curtain which closes the front of each chapel. Two
thick muscular pillars are visible, of a pale orange colour; they join
at an angle, forming a ~V~, of which the point lies on the median line
of the insect, against the lower face of the thorax. Each of these
pillars of flesh terminates suddenly at its upper extremity, as though
cut short, and from the truncated portion rises a short, slender tendon,
which is attached laterally to the corresponding cymbal.
There is the whole mechanism, no less simple than that of the steel
"cricket." The two muscular columns contract and relax, shorten and
lengthen. By means of its terminal thread each sounds its cymbal, by
depressing it and immediately releasing it, when its own elasticity
makes it spring back into shape. These two vibrating scales are the
source of the Cigale's cry.
Do you wish to convince yourself of the efficiency of this mechanism?
Take a Cigale but newly dead and make it sing. Nothing is simpler. Seize
one of these muscular columns with the forceps and pull it in a series
of careful jerks. The extinct _cri-cri_ comes to life again; at each
jerk there is a clash of the cymbal. The sound is feeble, to be sure,
deprived of the amplitude which the living performer is able to give it
by means of his resonating chambers; none the less, the fundamental
element of the song is produced by this anatomist's trick.
Would you, on the other hand, silence a living Cigale?--that obstinate
melomaniac, who, seized in the fingers, deplores his misfortune as
loquaciously as ever he sang the joys of freedom in his tree? It is
useless to violate his chapels, to break his mirrors; the atrocious
mutilation would not quiet him. But introduce a needle by the lateral
aperture which we have named the "window" and prick the cymbal at the
bottom of the sound-box. A little touch and the perforated cymbal is
silent. A similar operation on the other side of the insect and the
insect is dumb, though otherwise as vigorous as before and without any
perceptible wound. Any one not in the secret would be amazed at the
result of my pin-prick, when the destruction of the mirrors and the
other dependencies of the "church" do not cause silence. A tiny
perforation of no importance to the insect is more effectual than
The dampers, which are rigid and solidly built, are motionless. It is
the abdomen itself which, by rising and falling, opens or closes the
doors of the "church." When the abdomen is lowered the dampers exactly
cover the chapels as well as the windows of the sound-boxes. The sound
is then muted, muffled, diminished. When the abdomen rises the chapels
are open, the windows unobstructed, and the sound acquires its full
volume. The rapid oscillations of the abdomen, synchronising with the
contractions of the motor muscles of the cymbals, determine the changing
volume of the sound, which seems to be caused by rapidly repeated
strokes of a fiddlestick.
If the weather is calm and hot, towards mid-day the song of the Cigale
is divided into strophes of several seconds' duration, which are
separated by brief intervals of silence. The strophe begins suddenly. In
a rapid crescendo, the abdomen oscillating with increasing rapidity, it
acquires its maximum volume; it remains for a few seconds at the same
degree of intensity, then becomes weaker by degrees, and degenerates
into a shake, which decreases as the abdomen returns to rest. With the
last pulsations of the belly comes silence; the length of the silent
interval varies according to the state of the atmosphere. Then, of a
sudden, begins a new strophe, a monotonous repetition of the first; and
so on indefinitely.
It often happens, especially during the hours of the sultry afternoons,
that the insect, intoxicated with sunlight, shortens and even suppresses
the intervals of silence. The song is then continuous, but always with
an alternation of crescendo and diminuendo. The first notes are heard
about seven or eight o'clock in the morning, and the orchestra ceases
only when the twilight fails, about eight o'clock at night. The concert
lasts a whole round of the clock. But if the sky is grey and the wind
chilly the Cigale is silent.
The second species, only half the size of the common Cigale, is known in
Provence as the _Cacan_; the name, being a fairly exact imitation of the
sound emitted by the insect. This is the Cigale of the flowering ash,
far more alert and far more suspicious than the common species. Its
harsh, loud song consists of a series of cries--_can! can! can!
can!_--with no intervals of silence subdividing the poem into stanzas.
Thanks to its monotony and its harsh shrillness, it is a most odious
sound, especially when the orchestra consists of hundreds of performers,
as is often the case in my two plane-trees during the dog-days. It is as
though a heap of dry walnuts were being shaken up in a bag until the
shells broke. This painful concert, which is a real torment, offers only
one compensation: the Cigale of the flowering ash does not begin his
song so early as the common Cigale, and does not sing so late in the
Although constructed on the same fundamental principles, the vocal
organs exhibit a number of peculiarities which give the song its special
character. The sound-box is lacking, which suppresses the entrance to
it, or the window. The cymbal is uncovered, and is visible just behind
the attachment of the hinder wing. It is, as before, a dry white scale,
convex on the outside, and crossed by a bundle of fine reddish-brown
From the forward side of the first segment of the abdomen project two
short, wide, tongue-shaped projections, the free extremities of which
rest on the cymbals. These tongues may be compared to the blade of a
watchman's rattle, only instead of engaging with the teeth of a rotating
wheel they touch the nervures of the vibrating cymbal. From this fact, I
imagine, results the harsh, grating quality of the cry. It is hardly
possible to verify the fact by holding the insect in the fingers; the
terrified _Cacan_ does not go on singing his usual song.
The dampers do not overlap; on the contrary, they are separated by a
fairly wide interval. With the rigid tongues, appendages of the abdomen,
they half shelter the cymbals, half of which is completely bare. Under
the pressure of the finger the abdomen opens a little at its
articulation with the thorax. But the insect is motionless when it
sings; there is nothing of the rapid vibrations of the belly which
modulate the song of the common Cigale. The chapels are very small;
almost negligible as resonators. There are mirrors, as in the common
Cigale, but they are very small; scarcely a twenty-fifth of an inch in
diameter. In short, the resonating mechanism, so highly developed in the
common Cigale, is here extremely rudimentary. How then is the feeble
vibration of the cymbals re-enforced until it becomes intolerable?
This species of Cigale is a ventriloquist. If we examine the abdomen by
transmitted light, we shall see that the anterior two-thirds of the
abdomen are translucent. With a snip of the scissors we will cut off the
posterior third, to which are relegated, reduced to the strictly
indispensable, the organs necessary to the propagation of the species
and the preservation of the individual. The rest of the abdomen presents
a spacious cavity, and consists simply of the integuments of the walls,
except on the dorsal side, which is lined with a thin muscular layer,
and supports a fine digestive canal, almost a thread. This large cavity,
equal to nearly half the total volume of the insect, is thus almost
absolutely empty. At the back are seen the two motor muscles of the
cymbals, two muscular columns arranged like the limbs of a ~V~. To right
and left of the point of this ~V~ shine the tiny mirrors; and between
the two branches of muscle the empty cavity is prolonged into the depths
of the thorax.
This empty abdomen with its thoracic annex forms an enormous resonator,
such as no other performer in our countryside can boast of. If I close
with my finger the orifice of the truncated abdomen the sound becomes
flatter, in conformity with the laws affecting musical resonators; if I
fit into the aperture of the open body a tube or trumpet of paper the
sound grows louder as well as deeper. With a paper cone corresponding
to the pitch of the note, with its large end held in the mouth of a
test-tube acting as a resonator, we have no longer the cry of the
Cigale, but almost the bellowing of a bull. My little children,
coming up to me by chance at the moment of this acoustic experiment,
fled in terror.
The grating quality of the sound appears to be due to the little tongues
which press on the nervures of the vibrating cymbals; the cause of its
intensity is of course the ample resonator in the abdomen. We must admit
that one must truly have a real passion for song before one would empty
one's chest and stomach in order to make room for a musical-box. The
necessary vital organs are extremely small, confined to a mere corner of
the body, in order to increase the amplitude of the resonating cavity.
Song comes first of all; other matters take the second rank.
It is lucky that the _Cacan_ does not follow the laws of evolution. If,
more enthusiastic in each generation, it could acquire, in the course of
progress, a ventral resonator comparable to my paper trumpets, the South
of France would sooner or later become uninhabitable, and the _Cacan_
would have Provence to itself.
After the details already given concerning the common Cigale it is
hardly needful to tell you how the insupportable _Cacan_ can be reduced
to silence. The cymbals are plainly visible on the exterior. Pierce them
with the point of a needle, and immediately you have perfect silence. If
only there were, in my plane-trees, among the insects which carry
gimlets, some friends of silence like myself, who would devote
themselves to such a task! But no: a note would be lacking in the
majestic symphony of harvest-tide.
We are now familiar with the structure of the musical organ of the
Cigale. Now the question arises: What is the object of these musical
orgies? The reply seems obvious: they are the call of the males inviting
their mates; they constitute a lovers' cantata.
I am going to consider this reply, which is certainly a very natural
one. For thirty years the common Cigale and his unmusical friend the
_Cacan_ have thrust their society upon me. For two months every summer I
have them under my eyes, and their voice in my ears. If I do not listen
to them very willingly I observe them with considerable zeal. I see
them ranged in rows on the smooth rind of the plane-trees, all with
their heads uppermost, the two sexes mingled, and only a few inches
The proboscis thrust into the bark, they drink, motionless. As the sun
moves, and with it the shadow, they also move round the branch with slow
lateral steps, so as to keep upon that side which is most brilliantly
illuminated, most fiercely heated. Whether the proboscis is at work or
not the song is never interrupted.
Now are we to take their interminable chant for a passionate love-song?
I hesitate. In this gathering the two sexes are side by side. One does
not spend months in calling a person who is at one's elbow. Moreover, I
have never seen a female rush into the midst of even the most deafening
orchestra. Sight is a sufficient prelude to marriage, for their sight is
excellent. There is no need for the lover to make an everlasting
declaration, for his mistress is his next-door neighbour.
Is the song a means of charming, of touching the hard of heart? I doubt
it. I observe no sign of satisfaction in the females; I have never seen
them tremble or sway upon their feet, though their lovers have clashed
their cymbals with the most deafening vigour.
My neighbours the peasants say that at harvest-time the Cigale sings to
them: _Sego, sego, sego!_ (Reap, reap, reap!) to encourage them in their
work. Harvesters of ideas and of ears of grain, we follow the same
calling; the latter produce food for the stomach, the former food for
the mind. Thus I understand their explanation and welcome it as an
example of gracious simplicity.
Science asks for a better explanation, but finds in the insect a world
which is closed to us. There is no possibility of foreseeing, or even
of suggesting the impression produced by this clashing of cymbals upon
those who inspire it. The most I can say is that their impassive
exterior seems to denote a complete indifference. I do not insist that
this is so; the intimate feelings of the insect are an insoluble
Another reason for doubt is this: all creatures affected by song have
acute hearing, and this sense of hearing, a vigilant sentinel, should
give warning of danger at the slightest sound. The birds have an
exquisite delicacy of hearing. If a leaf stirs among the branches, if
two passers-by exchange a word, they are suddenly silent, anxious, and
on their guard. But the Cigale is far from sharing in such emotions. It
has excellent sight. Its great faceted eyes inform it of all that
happens to right and left; its three stemmata, like little ruby
telescopes, explore the sky above its head. If it sees us coming it is
silent at once, and flies away. But let us get behind the branch on
which it is singing; let us manoeuvre so as to avoid the five centres
of vision, and then let us speak, whistle, clap the hands, beat two
stones together. For far less a bird which could not see you would stop
its song and fly away terrified. The Cigale imperturbably continues to
sing as if nothing had occurred.
Of my experiences of this kind I will mention only one, the most
remarkable of many.
I borrowed the municipal artillery; that is, the iron boxes which are
charged with gunpowder on the day of the patron saint. The artilleryman
was delighted to load them for the benefit of the Cigales, and to fire
them off for me before my house. There were two of these boxes stuffed
full of powder as though for the most solemn rejoicing. Never was
politician making his electoral progress favoured with a bigger charge.
To prevent damage to my windows the sashes were all left open. The two
engines of detonation were placed at the foot of the plane-trees before
my door, no precautions being taken to mask them. The Cigales singing in
the branches above could not see what was happening below.
There were six of us, spectators and auditors. We waited for a moment of
relative quiet. The number of singers was counted by each of us, as well
as the volume and rhythm of the song. We stood ready, our ears attentive
to the aerial orchestra. The box exploded with a clap of thunder.
No disturbance ensued above. The number of performers was the same, the
rhythm the same, the volume the same. The six witnesses were unanimous:
the loud explosion had not modified the song of the Cigales in the
least. The second box gave an identical result.
What are we to conclude from this persistence of the orchestra, its lack
of surprise or alarm at the firing of a charge? Shall we conclude that
the Cigale is deaf? I am not going to venture so far as that; but if any
one bolder than myself were to make the assertion I really do not know
what reasons I could invoke to disprove it. I should at least be forced
to admit that it is very hard of hearing, and that we may well apply to
it the homely and familiar phrase: to shout like a deaf man.
When the blue-winged cricket, basking on the pebbles of some country
footpath, grows deliciously intoxicated with the heat of the sun and
rubs its great posterior thighs against the roughened edge of its
wing-covers; when the green tree-frog swells its throat in the foliage
of the bushes, distending it to form a resonant cavity when the rain is
imminent, is it calling to its absent mate? By no means. The efforts of
the former produce a scarcely perceptible stridulation; the palpitating
throat of the latter is as ineffectual; and the desired one does not
Does the insect really require to emit these resounding effusions, these
vociferous avowals, in order to declare its passion? Consult the immense
majority whom the conjunction of the sexes leaves silent. In the violin
of the grasshopper, the bagpipe of the tree-frog, and the cymbals of the
_Cacan_ I see only their peculiar means of expressing the joy of living,
the universal joy which every species of animal expresses after its
If you were to tell me that the Cigales play on their noisy instruments
careless of the sound produced, and merely for the pleasure of feeling
themselves alive, just as we rub our hands in a moment of satisfaction,
I should not be particularly shocked. That there is a secondary object
in their conceit, in which the silent sex is interested, is very
possible and very natural, but it is not as yet proven.