A Sweet Briar College Learning Resource

H2O - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water

Professor Jonathan Green

Water has had surprising prominence in the musical world. It has served as a tool, as inspiration, and even as a performing venue.

Water as a Musical Tool

    The Hydraulis, or Water Organ, was a musical instrument that produced sound using pressure generated by falling water as the energy source.

    Water Drums exist in various cultures. The native populations of the Americas constructed a drum within a drum, with the inner instrument being filled with various amounts of water to affect the timbre of the sound. In some areas in Africa and New Guinea, hollow gourds were placed in larger vessels and struck.

    Water Gong is the name attached to a modern use of traditional gongs and tam-tams. the instrument was struck and then lowered into a tub of water which lowered the pitch.Likewise, it could be struck while suspended in water, and then removed to raise the pitch.

Water as Inspiration in Music

Water has served composers as musical inspiration for a number of reasons: as the backdrop for opera and musical theater, as an image to be represented in musical sound, as a source of natural sound to be imitated in music, and as a cultural icon.

Musical Theater and Opera connected to Water

  • John Adams
    --- The Death of Klinghoffer
  • Gilbert and Sullivan
    --- Gondoliers
    --- H.M.S. Pinafore
    --- Pirates of Penzance
  • Pietro Mascagni
    --- Iris
  • Cole Porter
    --- Anything Goes
  • Rodgers and Hammerstein
    --- South Pacific

Musical Imagery of Water

  • Frederic Chopin
    --- Prelude, op. 28, no. 15, "The Raindrop"
  • Claude Debussy
    --- La cathédral englouté
    --- La Mer
    --- Reflets de l'eau
  • Ferde Grofe
    --- Mississippi Suite
  • Jacques Ibert
    --- Escales
  • Todd Levin
    --- Swirl
  • Maurice Ravel
    --- Jeux d'eau
  • Ottorino Respighi
    --- Fountains of Rome
  • Richard Rodgers
    --- Victory at Sea
  • Giacchino Rossini
    --- Overture to William Tell
  • Camille Saint-Saëns
    --- "Aquarium" from Carnival of the Animals
  • Virgil Thomson
    --- Suite from "The River"
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams
    --- Sea Symphony
  • Antonio Vivaldi
    --- 2 concerti, RV 253 and 433, "La Tempesta di mare"

Music that Imitates the Sounds of Water

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
    --- Symphony No. 6, movement 4 "The Thunderstorm"
  • Jonathan Green
    --- Symphony No. 3, movement 4 "Water"

Water as Cultural Icon in Music

  • Bedrich Smetana
    --- "The Moldau" from Ma Vlast [My Country]

Water as Musical Venue

Throughout history, composers have been asked to write music to be "played upon the water." Venetian musicians composed much brass music for barges.

The most celebrated piece of such music was composed in England, by Handel, for a 1717 party for George I upon the Thames.


H20 - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water
Chris Witcombe and Sang Hwang
Sweet Briar College