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.

MozartStarlingTune

A tune transcribed by Mozart from one of his starling’s songs

Image by Opus33 via Wikimedia Commons

 

Olivier_Messiaen_1930_Wikimedia

Olivier Messiaen by Studio Harcourt 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
Eurasian Wren photo by Chris Henry


Further Learning

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 >

References


1. Suthers, R. A. & Goller, F. (1997) Motor correlates of vocal diversity in songbirds. In: Current Ornithology. Nolan Jr., V., Ketterson, E. &Thompson, C. F. (Eds.). New York, Plenum Press. 14: 235-288.

2. Suthers, R. A., Vallet, E. & Kreutzer, M. (2012) Bilateral coordination and the motor basis of female preference for sexual signals in canary song. Journal of Experimental Biology. 215: 2950-2959.

3. Beecher, M. D. (2008) Function and mechanisms of song learning in song sparrows. Advances in Animal Behavior, 38: 167-225.

4. Templeton, C. N., Akçay, Ç., Campbell, S. E. & Beecher, M. D. (2009) Juvenile sparrows preferentially eavesdrop on adult song interactions. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B. 277: 447-453.

5. Araya-Salas, M. , Wright, T. (2013) Open-ended song learning in a hummingbird.
Biology Letters, 9: 20130625.

6. Brainard, M.S. & Doupe, A.J. (16 May 2002) What songbirds teach us about learning. Nature, 417: 351-358.


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>.

Acknowledgements:
Authors: Mya Thompson and Annalyse Moskeland
Web Designer: Jeff Szuc
Web programmer: Tahir Poduska
Illustrator: Andrew Leach