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Bird Songs and Their Inspirational effect on Humans

Bird Songs, Calls and Their Inspirational Effect on Humans

(Author’s note: Our informational and educational newsletter features articles are usually science-based and written for birders who may not have a strong grounding in the natural sciences. This articles deviates from the usual in that it describes how musicians and poets throughout history have been influenced by, benefited from, and produced works that were inspired by the natural world, animal sounds, and particularly bird songs and calls.)

Curved-bill thrasher by Doris Evans

It has long been speculated that human music has its origins in bird song. This makes sense as mankind had been listening to bird songs long before man learned to sing or make musical instruments. Humans make music for aesthetic and practical reasons: music sounds beautiful to our ears, it can be used to express a wide range of emotions, it commemorates particular events, and it acts as a universal language.

Human music probably began with people listening to bird songs and then experimenting with our own voices until we learned to sing and then learned to make instruments to accompany the human voice. We’ve invented instruments that enable us to extend the range of sounds beyond our human limitations. We can classify the sounds we appreciate as music into comfortable categories that we develop preferences for, such as classical, jazz, folk, etc. While we humans have made music into a sophisticated means of communication, primarily for our own satisfaction and enjoyment, it is worthwhile to ponder the origins of bird songs and calls and the purposes they serve in the natural world. It is interesting to consider that birds vocalize and communicate for reasons other than those that humans relate to. Or possibly not.

We know that birds communicate with physical displays but more extensively through songs and calls. Using vocalizations, birds keep their flocks together, recognize individuals or their own family members, announce territory, warn others of imminent danger, attract mates, find new food sources, teach their young, etc. Essentially, birds communicate their most important needs through songs and calls. Humans have other means to communicate important aspects of their lives.

Raven by Doris Evans

If the sounds of birds are as ancient as the birds themselves, then their songs can be considered the ancestors of human music. The ancient Greek poets credit bird sounds and songs as the earliest poetry. Both poetry and music contain the essential elements of bird songs – rhythm, structure, timbre, pitch, melody, alliteration, duration, tempo, amplification, etc.

It’s easy to think of bird songs as the earliest, and maybe the most “primitive,” form of music. Bird songs have remained unchanged throughout history as they serve well-defined purposes and natural talents are passed on from one generation to the next as a key to their survival, individually and as a species. Human music has changed and evolved throughout history, but our survival is not dependent on our sounds and music-making abilities. The sounds of any given avian species have remained unchanged since that species first evolved. How many of our human songs will last through the ages? Certainly some music will prove the test of time (think of Bach or Beethoven), but most music will probably be forgotten 1000 years from now. However, the songs of the American Robin (or any other species) sound today much as they did 1000 years ago and will likely sound the same 1000 years from now.

Gambel's quail
by Richard at SearchNet Media

Humans are taught to sing. We are not born with innate ability to musically express ourselves or our needs. However, very few birds ever have the need to learn to sing. Among the thousands of bird species on the planet, most are born with the sounds they use. Only four of the twenty-three major groups of birds need to learn to make their sounds: song-birds, parrots, hummingbirds, and lyrebirds.

In 1580 the great essayist Montaigne wrote of how birds learn their songs and what he said is fully compatible with modern science:

Aristotle maintained that nightingales teach their sons to sing, spending plenty of time and care at it…We can deduce that singing is improved with training and discipline. Even among wild birds, songs are not equal to each other; all birds learn according to their own skills. During the period of learning birds may be in competition with each other…The younger ones meditate and start to copy certain strophes; the pupil listens to the maestro’s lesson and then repeats it with care, knowing just when to stay silent.

In Immanuel Kant’s famous 1790 book, Critique of Judgment, he tries to explain why people find nature to be beautiful in an untouchable sense. He applauds the magnificence of the sublime and beautiful in nature and explains why nature is better than art, which is often “worked” and organized in order to be appealing and impressive. He writes:

Even a bird’s song, which we can reduce to no musical rule, seems to have more freedom in it…than the human voice singing in accordance with all the rules that the art of music prescribes.

Throughout human history, writers, musicians, poets, and dreamers of various sorts have been inspired by bird songs and sounds. Walt Whitman makes clear the connection between poetry and bird song:

Out on the branch the mockingbird beams forth so that all can see and hear him, this gushing of energy and choice. What beats, what surety, what earthly power! If you want a new form for your poem, you need only listen hard and long, breathe it in, and try not to mock its rhythm but hold on to the way it grabs you and doesn’t stop.

Many poets have tried, with varying degrees of success, to make human sounds and language that is directly inspired and derived from bird songs. And, although it remains foreign-sounding and strange to human ears, the nonsense syllables that the great German Dada artist and poet Kurt Schwitters pioneered in his famous 1922 sound art piece, Ursonate, resonate with birders who study songs and calls. While Schwitters was playing with sound purely for its own sake, he and other European Dadaists studied the natural sounds of the wildlife around them and turned the sounds they heard into poetry and music. Hugo Ball, another German Dada artist of the period, wrote and performed a musical poem based on the sounds that elephants make, backwards! Yet while these artistic works were inspired by birds and other animals, they did not prove popular with the general public. Here is an excerpt from Schwitters Ursonate:

Ooobee tatta tuu
Ooobee tatta tuu
Oooobee tatta tuii Ee
Oooobee tatta tuiiEe tuiEe
Oooobee tatta tuiiEe tuiEe
Tilla lalla tilla lalla
Tilla lalla tilla lalla
Tuii tuii tuii tuii
Tuii tuii tuii tuii
Tee tee tee tee
Tee tee tee tee

One who studies, or even listens carefully, to bird calls and songs can appreciate Schwitters’ “translations” of bird sounds into poetry.

The American naturalist and educator F. Schuyler Mathews, in his 1921 classic, Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music, comes to realize the limits of notation’s ability to make sense of some of the stranger sounds birds make. Writing about the alien-sounding music of the screech owl, he states:

Their notes were simply weird, a sort of cross between a sneeze and the wheeze of a pair of leathern bellows with the wail of a half-frozen puppy thrown in to make matters more mysterious. I shortly came to the conclusion that these were young birds which had not yet learned to sing properly, so I gave them a lesson or two, at the same time profiting by the experience, and getting a few lessons for myself.

Bird calls, usually simple notes, are quite different from songs. They usually convey a specific message and are used to communicate precise information: “Where are you?” or “I’m hungry,” or “Watch out, a hawk’s circling above,” or “I’m injured.” Birds that mimic will almost always mimic another bird’s call more than their songs. There are always exceptions, of course, like the Northern Mockingbird who will mimic practically any sound they hear at least once and with great accuracy!

If the ability to sing is inherent, then it should be understood that this ability or process begins with the brain. It is a scientific fact the human brain is the most advanced and capable in all of nature. It is generally accepted that the apes are closest to humans in terms of learning, ability, and in having a more advanced brain than other animals in nature’s kingdom. Science has learned that there are some features common to all vocal-learning brains in nature. In these aspects of brain structure, humans are closer to songbirds than to chimpanzees. Although gibbons sing elaborate duets in their trees at dawn, they are born with this ability; they do not learn it. Birds and humans share the ability to learn to sing, something no ape can do.

Sandhill Cranes by Doris Evans

Many of the major composers of the Romantic era are known to have been inspired by bird songs and many of their compositions are derived from studying birds and incorporating aspects into their music and songs. However many famous musical pieces inspired by bird’s songs, and there have been many, there is one composer in the classical tradition who heard more than charm in the music of birds.

This is the French avant-garde composer Olivier Messiaen, one of most distinctive voices in 20th century music. He had been fascinated with the connections between music made by humans and that of birds since his teenage years. During the early years of WWll, he was a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp Stalag 8A, which held over 30,000 people. The Red Cross gave him music paper and identified a few other musicians in the camp. The Red Cross secured a few violins, cellos, clarinets, and just one piano. He completed one of his most celebrated compositions, Abyss of the Birds, the first of many to feature the sounds of birds.

In eight movements of astonishingly beautiful music, the four instruments weave in and out through unusual harmonies, rhythms, and impressionistic chords that rise up toward a sonic, heavenly end. In the first movement, the clarinet and violin trade sounds from blackbird and nightingale, and the solo clarinet third movement is an attempt to link the endless enthusiasm of singing birds with the long, dark weight of eternity. In his notes to the piece, he wrote:

The birds are the opposite of time. They represent our longing for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant song. In my hours of gloom, when I am suddenly aware of my own futility, when every musical idiom – classical, oriental, ancient, modern and ultramodern – appears to me as no more than admirable painstaking experimentation without any ultimate justification, what is left for me but to seek out the true, lost face of music somewhere off in the forest, in the fields, in the mountains or on the seas, among the birds.

Northern Cardinal
by Richard at SearchNet Media

Unlike earlier and later composers, who often tried to emulate the musical energy of the birds by using the shapes of their melodies, Messiaen was as concerned with the tone quality and rhythm as he was with the tunes. His massive, seven-volume Traite de rythme, de couleur et d’ornithologie includes two six-hundred-page books of detailed transcriptions of bird songs, most done by ear with no recording technology available to him. If the bird sang irregularly and haltingly, he would transcribe the song that way and adapt it so that human musicians could make use of this irregularity. And by blending together all the bird songs that might be heard in one location, he combined exact notations with ecological ideas.

In the sprawling solo piano work, Catalogue d’Oiseaux, he uses the single instrument to play an entire treatise on the sounds of birds and their habitats. Each bird is conjured with precise harmonies, rhythms, and situations, with the phrases of birds placed together based on time of day, shared environment, and surrounding sounds – those of water, dawn, night, fog, and wind. The music is abstract enough to be far from the easy programmatic sense of Beethoven, but it is both more cryptic and more exact.

Phainopepla by Doris Evans

In our own time, the composer and sound designer Douglas Quin has composed and improvised pieces based entirely on sampled bird sounds for several decades. His piece, Ice Diver, combines longing, evocative loon calls with a flutist playing transcriptions of those songs, blending pure, resonating harmonies with the ethereal paean of the loneliest bird in America. He also used bird song transcriptions as scores for a clarinetist to perform over sampled backgrounds of natural “ambiences” from different ecosystems around the world. One movement of his Gentle Wind begins with the weird who ooo ooh of the screech owl (unknown species); another begins with the typical tones of the Brown Thrasher, moving on to the whortle of the robin and optimistic defensive calls of the song sparrow. Quin noted that music does not copy bird songs but builds its own logic upon them. “This is just what the birds do,” he said.

Much of the research described in this article comes from Why Birds Sing, by David Rothenberg, published by Basic Books, 2005.

Further information on this subject can be found in the following publications:

  • Nature’s Music: The Science of Birdsong, Peter Marler and Hans Slabbekoorn, London: Elsevier Press, 2004.
  • Behavioral Nuerobiology of Birdsong, Phillip Zeigler and Peter Marler, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1016, 2004.
  • Bird Sounds and Their Meaning, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.
  • The Book of Music and Nature, David Rothenberg and Marta Ulvaeus, Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2001.
  • The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin, 1871.
  • Birds and Poets, John Burroughs, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1904.
  • The Minds of Birds, Alexander Skutch, College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1996.
  • To hear the sounds and to see a video of the clarinet and Laughing Thrush duet, go to www.whybirdssing.com.

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