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What Kind of Music Is Bird Song?

Beauty may elude scientific explanation

Composers from Vivaldi to Beethoven have been inspired by birdsong. But how similar is birdsong to the music we create? Two recent studies offer contrasting answers. One analysis used nearly 250 song examples of the Nightingale Wren, pictured here, a tropical bird widely admired for its haunting song. It concluded that Nightingale Wren songs only rarely accord with our harmonic intervals. However, analysis of Hermit Thrush songs revealed a harmonic structure that was similar to human music at least 70% of the time. 

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Transcript: 

BirdNote®   

What Kind of Music Is Bird Song?

Written by Bob Sundstrom

This is BirdNote.

[Music – Opening phrase, Beethoven Symphony No. 6]

 Composers from Vivaldi to Beethoven have been inspired by birdsong. Which brings up an intriguing question — in terms of structure, just how similar is birdsong to the music we create? 

Two recent studies offer contrasting answers. Each assessed, statistically, the songs of a superb avian singer to see if they followed the kind of harmonic structures that we would recognize in human music. One analysis used nearly 250 song examples of the Nightingale Wren, a tropical American bird widely admired for its haunting song. [Nightingale Wren song, http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/195293, 0.05-.09]

The research found no consistent similarity between the structure of the Nightingale Wren’s song and that of western music scales. But a parallel piece of research reached a very different conclusion. [Hermit Thrush song, http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/169025, 0.15-20

Analysis of slowed-down Hermit Thrush songs revealed that they had a harmonic structure that was similar to human music at least 70% of the time. These dissimilar results leave open the question of whether birds and humans share a biological predisposition toward particular musical structures. Though the beauty of a bird’s song is something that may always elude scientific explanation. 

[Music – Closing phrase, first movement of Beethoven Symphony No. 6]

For BirdNote, I’m Mary McCann.

###

Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York: Nightingale Wren [195293] recorded by Kathi Borgmann; Hermit Thrush [168025] recorded by Matthew D Medler.  
Music: Beethoven Symphony No 6 Op 68 ‘Pastoral’ performed by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Herbert Von Karajan. Deutsche Grammophon
BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Dominic Black

© 2015 Tune In to Nature.org     September 2017         Narrator: Mary McCann

ID# song-14-2015-09-08 song-14

Hermit Thrush research: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/birds-songs-share-mathemati...

Nightingale Wren study: http://news.sciencemag.org/math/2012/08/birdsong-not-music-after-all

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