Bird Song

Music can most simply be defined as the movement of pitch over time. Sound is organized as melody and rhythm; the mood and message of the expression can be further focused and enhanced by the sound’s qualities of dynamics and texture. Therefore, music is not only defined by the songs of human beings, but also by all of the endless natural expressions of pitch over time — you may hear a song in the bubbling of a stream, the call of a whale, or a symphony of cicadas. A bird’s particularly melodious and rhythmic song is also one form of music that we naturally experience each day, without having to press play.

Many birds’ songs involve extraordinary syllabic diversity, repetition and temporal regularity: all qualities of music. Birds use songs for courtship and mating, to demonstrate fitness, to define territory, or as alarms or to keep members of a flock in contact. Birds may use different songs to communicate to a whole group, to a particular individual, or to a bird of another species. Many birds engage in duets, sometimes so perfectly timed as to be perceived as one call. Some birds, such as the tropical drongo, display an incredible talent for vocal mimicry — they can match the pitch, rhythm and texture of another species’ song, or even of man-made sounds. Non-vocal sounds may also be considered songs, such as the drumming of woodpeckers, the clattering of storks’ bills, and the percussive stridulation of manakins.

In singing birds, the vocal organ used is called the syrinx: a bony structure at the bottom of the trachea which resonates to sound waves made as the bird forces air through membranes in the throat. The bird controls pitch by adjusting the tension on the membranes, and controls the pitch and volume by altering the force of exhalation. This is how most species of animals sing, including humans. Most birds sing on the same traditional scales which are used in human music.

Birds learn songs in two stages, exactly how any musician learns a musical piece from her instructor: the first is sensory learning, in which the juvenile listens to and memorizes the spectral and temporal qualities of the song expressed by its parents or another member of the group. The second is sensorimotor learning, in which the juvenile produces and practices its own vocalizations until it matches the song template it has learned. This process usually takes at least two or three months, after which the young bird will be able to effectively vocalize the song and unique dialect of their species.

The tweeting, chirping, clucking, quacking and singing of birds can be perceived by us humans as so musical that in fact, many musicians have been influenced to incorporate birds’ melodies and rhythms into their own compositions. The song of the goldfinch inspired the Italian composer Vivaldi to write a flute concerto in 1729 called The Goldfinch. Beethoven’s student Carl Cherny suggested that the song of the yellowhammer is where Beethoven got the first four notes for his famous Symphony No. 5, written in 1804. The Italian composter Ottorino Respighi wrote a suite for small orchestra in 1928 called The Birds, which represents an attempt to transcribe the vocation and auditory expression of birds into musical notation. In 1924, Beatrice Harrison recorded an extraordinary live duet with nightingales in her garden. David Rothenberg, author of Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into the Mystery of Bird Song, also performed duets with birds, including the laughingthrush and the Australian lyrebird.

The next time you hear a bird’s song, listen to how naturally it expresses the same qualities of music you hear in any human’s composition. Listen for the mood, melody, tone, texture, intervals, rhythm, patterns and repetition. Listening closely, perhaps you may even be able to interpret the bird’s message. Listen, and appreciate the beautiful music which blooms constantly around us from our fellow Earth species.

Woke up this mornin’
Smiled with the risin’ sun
Three little birds
Pitch by my doorstep
Singin’ sweet songs
Of melodies pure and true
Saying: “this is my message to you”
Singing: “don’t worry ’bout a thing
‘Cause every little thing gonna be alright”
— Three Little Birds — Bob Marley



Photo by benjamint444 ===A male and female superb fairy wren === via wikicommons