Singing insects have been forming rhythmic sounds in large groups millions of years before humans appeared on this Earth. So they could be considered the first drummers on the planet. The most well-known insect sounds, the songs of crickets and katydids, are made by stridulation, the rubbing of one part of the body against another.
Here is a painting of the insect chorus by Charles Burchfield:
How exactly do they come in and out of sync? Their brains follow simple mathematical rules, such as this one: If you hear your neighbor chirp, make your next chirp a little closer to his. Here are three versions of this model that crickets, frogs, fireflies, and other synchronizing creatures use:
You can hear such a process at work in the familiar sound of the snowy tree cricket, more often heard that seen. Should you glimpse one they are tiny, but quite beautiful:
VJ Manzo and I developed an app that shows you such a process in action:
And here is a patch that turns this algorithm into a musical tool to be used in the popular digital audio
software Max for Live. You can here a sample of what comes out from that patch here.
Here's a story about this project on the Ableton Live website.
In China crickets have been kept in cages for centuries, for their fighting and singing abilities. Here is one of the experts in this pastime, Mr. Fung, shopping for the finest singers in Shanghai. The best insects can cost more than a thousand dollars:
In the autumn when the weather turns cold, singing crickets find their way into our homes, and into songs and poems as well:
Why should the tiny cricket’s
tune so sway my heart?
Unsafe outside, it crawls in
beneath my bed to sing at night.
I’ve wandered long for many years,
my sadness so endures.
The wife at home, asleep alone
will toss and turn til dawn—
No wind or string can move us
like the cricket’s faithful song…
—Tu Fu, 759 AD