Experience, Wildlife

The Musicality of Birdsong

From Donald Kroodsma's The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong, 2005.
From Donald Kroodsma’s The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong.

By Joanne Garton

Formal study of birdsong has long been fascinated with the who, how, and why of some of our most ubiquitous outdoor sounds. Many guides encourage new birders to learn their species by ear, listening for bird presence rather than relying on sight alone. Researchers have examined everything from a songbird’s syrinx (the bird equivalent of a larynx) to its wing morphology to determine how a bird makes its song. Ecologists have monitored bird behavior to suggest why they sing and why birdsong makes us feel happy and safe. (For further thoughts on birdsong as a cultural ecosystem service, take a look at my research proposal on the valuation of birdsong in education.)

As a student of an Applied Wildlife Management course and an avid musician and fiddler, and a complete beginner when it comes to birds, I decided to examine the what of birdsong. More specifically, I was curious about the musical what, the pieces and patterns of sound that make up a spring morning or summer evening. Do birds sing in pitches and tones like we do? Do they prefer certain keys? Do they take a breath with each phrase? And how hard could it be to learn to reproduce birdsongs? (Quite hard, it turns out). Click on the bird names that look like this to hear my renditions of some of these birds’ songs.

Intervals

Western music revolves primarily around a 12-tone scale. Those tones are the 12 keys, both white and black, on the piano between any note and its octave above or below (for example, between a ‘C’ and the ‘C’ above it). Combinations of these tones form intervals that all have specific names: major thirds, perfect fifths, minor sevenths, and so on.

Knowing my intervals, I wondered which ones birds often use. Do those intervals fit within our 12-tone scale? To find answers, I first drifted to the simple song of the chickadee. Its distinctive “Hey Sweetie” is the soundtrack of our Vermont winter days and the backdrop of so many of our spring and summer bird symphonies. The Black-capped Chickadee (reminder: click on “Chickadee” to hear my rendition of its song) sings in two pitches usually separated by a minor third interval. That’s the interval you’d use to imitate an old-fashioned siren, or the first notes of the children’s song “This Old Man”. Oddly, the chickadee’s song is identical throughout the North American continent except in Martha’s Vineyard, where it sings two mono-tonal “Hey Sweeties”, each separated by a minor third (for more fascinating information on the phenomenon of the uniform chickadee call, check out Donald Kroodsma’s The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong).

But the chickadees aren’t alone. The Common Loon wails its mournful cry by jumping up, then sliding down, a minor third. Its yodel and tremolo revolve around this same interval. The Barred Owl “cooks for you” over a minor third and the Eastern Peewee hops up one minor third, and then another. (Side note: For those with a background in music theory, you may remember that a minor third plus a minor third makes a tri-tone, or the interval halfway between a perfect fourth and perfect fifth. The tri-tone was once called the “Devil’s Interval” and was banned in Renaissance church music. I hate to think how the singing Peewee fared in those days.)

The prevalence of the minor third in birdsong has not yet been well documented nor explained by birders, evolutionists or musicians (read the post of a similarly perplexed author here). Thankfully, birds use many other intervals to make their songs, some of which are musical to human ears. The White-Throated Sparrow (sings its “Oh Sweet (Sweet) Canada Canada Canada Canada” over a perfect fourth (the interval found at the beginning of “Here Comes the Bride”), as do some songs of the Northern Cardinal. The Common Yellow-Throat roughly hits notes within a perfect fifth (here, you only need to think of the beginning of the theme music for “Star Wars”), as does the arpeggio of the Whip-poor-will. But more on those two when we speak next of tempo.

Tempo

Many birdsongs are sporadically sprinkled with a breathy silence that relaxes the human listener, and one would assume, even the bird. But the tonally and rhythmically consistent calls of the Whip-poor-will are different. Sometimes paced around 60-65 calls per minute, its song is like a melodic metronome. Its relentless and rushed beat reminded me of dance club music. Often between 110 and 130 beats per minute, club music is designed to be faster than a slightly elevated human heartbeat, making the listener feel anxious and ready to dance. My impression of the whip-poor-will’s call? Add some beat boxing behind it at double time tempo and you’ve got nature’s recipe for urban groove. I only wonder how long it can go before it takes a breath.

The Common Yellowthroat is also an adept and rhythmic songster. Its call was the only one of my small study that I had to record at a modified and slowed pace. The jagged rhythm of its staccato (meaning, short and clipped) song notes almost disappears when sung at full tempo. The quick speed of some birdsongs makes the task of learning to reproduce them seem daunting at times. Thank goodness for the magic of technology. I tapped into my brother’s transcription company to slow recorded birdsongs down to one-quarter tempo to discern some notes and rhythms of speedy songs.

Some Lessons Learned

The process of learning to reproduce birdsongs on my fiddle taught me as much about my own musical ability as it did of the birds’.

Listening – Even with regular practice, I couldn’t accurately reproduce a birdsong without listening to the original every day. Left to my own devices, I morphed the birdsong into a tonal or rhythmic pattern that was already familiar to me from previous musical exposure. I’ve clearly practiced my acute listening skills more with fiddle tunes than with birdsong. What kind of musician would I be if I had learned to play birdsongs as a child before ever attempting Twinkle Twinkle Little Star?

Vibrato – Or, no vibrato. The warble of many birdsongs does not come from a pulsating, bending pitch change. So far, I’ve found that birds sing pure, unwavering pitches. They just have an ability to switch quickly between different pitches. Vibrato on a fiddle does no justice to birdsong.

Patterns – The patterns of birdsongs and their parts vary by species and within species. They are often not predictable, nor do they fall into patterns common in our own music. Out of habit, I found myself adding familiar grace notes (or, short notes used to decorate a primary note) to dress up a birdsong, only to find myself led away from the true song. Clearly, birds never took tips from Mozart (but I bet that Mozart took tips from them).

The Future of Music and Birdsong

I am not the first to dissect the musicality of birdsong. F. Schuyler Mathews wrote and notated the Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music in 1904, but I’d imagine that many more birders and musicians had attempted this before in their own interpretive ways. Remembering that birds feel no pressure to sing to a certain standard, I wonder if their songs can change. Or, do they stick to a song once evolution deems it a success? Perhaps noting some of the music elements of birdsong today will inform an unsuspecting birder of the future how the world’s ecology has changed, adding a layer of music to the already captivating and endless progression of life.

Joanne Garton is a graduating Ecological Planner who is happy to report her listening skills are improving thanks to the birds. Find her wooing confused songbirds with her fiddle in Montpelier, Vermont.

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