I’d Like to be Under the Sea: In Search for Octopus Soundscapes


Octopus encounters in Western popular music of the 1960s: well-known is “Octopus’s Garden” (The Beatles, Abbey Road, 1969). Around the same time, “Cement Octopus” (Malvina Reynolds/Pete Seeger, God Bless The Grass, 1966) and “Octopus” (Van der Graaf Generator, Aerosol Grey Machine, 1969) feature very different cephalopods.
Meanwhile, Jean Painlevé’s 1967 film Les amours de la pieuvre (The Love Life of an Octopus) presents film music by Pierre Henry, a pioneer of musique concrète and early composer of electronic music. The near-alien otherness of octopuses that Peter Godfrey-Smith describes: here is its early audiovisual realization.
However, what are the actual soundscapes of octopuses? Turning from pop culture to science studies, one recognizes that the hearing ability (or presumed deafness) of octopuses has been debated for decades. Perhaps most remarkable is the theoretical middle ground that connects music and octopuses. Johann Nikolaus Forkel (A General History of Music, 1788) compares the evolution of human arts and sciences to the octopus. Jakob von Uexküll exemplifies his musical terminology of ecological meaning by the contrapuntal relation of water and octopus. And Peter Godfrey-Smith describes the organization of the octopus mind as similar to a jazz band. When it comes to music and sound, the octopuses turn out to be true animots in Derrida’s sense.


Martin Ullrich studied piano in Frankfurt and Berlin and music theory, also in Berlin. He received his PhD in musicology in 2005. His main research area is sound and music in the context of human-animal studies. He has presented and chaired at international conferences and has published on animal music and the relationship between animal sounds and human music. Ullrich has been professor for music theory at Berlin University of the Arts from 2005 and president of Nuremberg University of Music from 2009. Since 2017, he is professor for interdisciplinary musicology and human-animal studies at Nuremberg University of Music.