The Music of Bird Song
Songbirds—with their two-sided voice boxes and capacity to learn complicated songs—create soundscapes that have influenced many composers and instrumentalists. Bird melodies have been recreated by flutes, oboes, pianos, and xylophones in musical works from Haydn’s The Seasons to Beethoven’s sixth symphony.
Birds particularly fascinated Mozart, who kept a starling as a pet. According to one of his journals, he even taught the bird to sing the opening theme of one of his piano concertos (though it apparently always sang sharp.) This claim is believable as starlings are fantastic mimics, often boasting repertoires of 15–20 distinct imitations. Some are of different birds; others are of manmade sounds such as cars, whistles, and even human speech.
Image by Opus33 via Wikimedia Commons
One of the composers most captivated by birds was Olivier Messiaen. During the twentieth century he produced orchestral, choral, and piano pieces made up of individual bird songs reproduced by different instruments. This eventually led him on a quest around the world to observe and transcribe the songs of exotic birds. Messiaen later used these records in the creation of several compositions including the orchestral work Oiseaux Exotiques, which features the songs of the White-crested Laughingthrush, the bulbul, and 45 other unique bird species (related article).
Now, decades after Messiaen’s final composition, with advanced recording equipment readily available, musicians can more easily incorporate bird vocalizations directly into their work. Contemporary composers have used bird song recordings to overlay orchestral symphonies and choral performances. Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer’s electronic creation, Gene Piece, R.A.I. Bird is created entirely through electronic manipulation of bird sounds. Other contemporary musicians continue the tradition of using instruments to mimic bird song, like jazz composer Maria Schneider in her album Cerulean Skies. It’s because the bird soundscape can be so varied and complex that songbirds have captured the attention of music lovers through the ages.
Eurasian Wren photo by Chris Henry
Interactive: Birds Got Swing: A musical experiment
Join Grammy-recognized artists Maria Schneider and Theo Bleckmann in their musical experiment to help us tune in to nature’s music.Watch Birds Got Swing >
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Suggested citation: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 2014. Bird Song. All About Bird Biology <birdbiology.org>. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. <add date accessed here: e.g. 02 Oct. 2014>.
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