From Bird Beaks Come Bird Beats

Nature often takes a backseat to modern sounds of progress.  How much does nature, specifically birdsong, parallel and influence human creation of music?  With the sounds of machines, industry, and other man-made noises, are we drowning out valuable inspiration for human imagination and artistic prospects?  While there may not be concrete answers to these questions, biologists and musicologists are currently studying the similarities between animal song and human music to better understand the relationship between the natural and man made noises.  Many biologists and musicologists debate the influences and importance of birdsong in the development of human music.  However, by analyzing the similarities between birdsong and human music, it is possible to better understand the relationship between man, his environment, and other species.

There are many similarities between music and birdsong.  Birdsong may be comparable to human musical compositions because birdsongs may include “rhythmic variations, pitch relationships, permutations, and combinations of notes” analogous to those used by human composers (Atema 52). Birds may also make music through the use of “instruments,” such as pounding on objects or possessing specialized feather structures (Atema 52).  By understanding the similarities between birdsong and human music, it may be possible to experience similar emotions when hearing birds as when listening to man-made music.  According to Angier, human emotional response to music may be deeply embedded in the brain (Angier).  If humans exhibit instinctual emotional responses to man-made music, perhaps deep connections with birdsong are possible

Birdsong may also be comparable to human language, as it is used as a form of communication between birds.  The difference between language and music lies in the meaning.  While language is generally used to convey a true or false meaning, musical meaning is more ambiguous (Fitch 31).  Similar to the way developing humans use “baby-talk” or experiment with different vocal sounds, birds also experience a developmental stage characterized by vocal experimentation (Fitch 35).  Depending on the definition of “song,” birdsong may or may not be considered a complex form of music, instead of a form of language used for communication.  Fitch makes the distinction that “song” must be complex and must be developed through “vocal learning” from the environment (Fitch 35).  By this definition, both birdsong and human music are unique in their complexity and creation.  However, according to Fitch, birdsong and human musical ability evolved concurrently, but separately (Fitch 36).

Christian religious beliefs also point to similarities between music and birdsong.  Pagan beliefs sprouted the Christian notion that humans learned music from the birds.  For example, the dove was seen as the messenger of God (Head 12).  Additionally, Christian religion identified the birth of music from the Fall as Eve mimicked the songs of the birds out of jealousy (Head 9).  However, later notions challenged the concept of nature-spurred music and instead posited that music was instinctual to man (Head 17).  By dismissing the implications of birdsong, eighteenth century thinkers paved the way for modern alienation from nature because birdsong became an entity outside the definition of art that humans could not understand (Head 19).  Likewise, studies, such as Araya-Salas’ study of the harmonic structure of birdsong, further isolate human music from animal or natural music by rejecting birdsong because it does not “conform to the harmonic rules of human music” (Araya-Salas 7).

Alienation from nature creates a society that is deaf to the sounds of its environment.  By ignoring the surrounding environment, humans ignore their impact on the surrounding ecosystem by creating noise that drowns out the environment.  In drowning out environmental sounds, humans impede mating and communication between animals and harm the natural processes of the earth, perhaps changing them irrevocably (Tingley).  Additionally, the ability to listen to surroundings enables people to become better listeners and to understand themselves, their environments, and others around them on a deeper level.  Without the ability to listen, people could not communicate effectively or live the most productive lives possible.  Ultimately, listening to nature creates a cascade of positive affects upon the individual and upon society as a whole.  Studying birdsong may be the first building block in the larger prospects of mankind.

While it is necessary to study environmental soundscapes as a whole to understand the affects of ambient noises and the interactions of different sounds within an environment, it is important to analyze birdsong by itself because of the stylistic parallels between human music.  If people examine the music-making abilities of alternate species of animals, such as birds, it increases the possibility of revealing the meanings behind songs.  Once song meaning can be discerned, the notion of a universal music that could be understood and enjoyed by multiple species concurrently becomes a possibility.     

Annotated Bibliography

Angier, Natalie. “Sonata for Humans, Birds, and Humpback Whales.”  The New York Times.  9 Jan. 2001.  Web.

Natalie Angier is a science journalist for the New York Times who does not possess any direct experience evaluating the relationship between animal and humans sounds.  Based on the various terms used throughout the article, Angier’s article is intended for musicians, composers, or other people with musical backgrounds.  Matthew Head would agree with Angier about the musical affects on the mind-body relationship, but Head also considers the possible spiritual influences on music and how this relates to birds, the mind, and the body.  By studying the connections between music and the body, parallels can then be made between music and nature.

Araya-Salas, M. (2012), Is birdsong music?. Significance, 9: 4–7. doi: 10.1111/j.1740-9713.2012.00613.x

Araya-Salas is a biologist with extensive experience studying bird species in tropical and temperate climates, but may be less qualified to provide musical analyses.  This article is a simplified explanation of Araya-Salas’ research experiment testing the harmonic intervals of nightingale wrens, essentially translated for the everyday reader.  Araya-Salas posits that the songs of the nightingale wren are not music because they do not exhibit specific elements of human music.  While Araya-Salas only makes this claim about a single species of bird, the authors of “The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music”  would probably disagree with Araya-Salas’ claim.  Perhaps the musicality of birdsong depends on the definition of “music” being studied.

Atema, Jelle, et al. “The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music.” Science 291.5501 (2001): 52. General OneFile. Web.

The various authors of “The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music” include a biology professor, a keyboardist, a soundscape ecologist, an environmentalist, and an expert on birdsong, who are all very qualified to collectively evaluate the relationships between human and bird sound.  This article was published in Science Magazine and geared toward the everyday reader.

Araya-Salas would challenge Jelle, et al claims that birdsong is parallel to human music.  Jelle, et al provide many examples of the musicality of birdsong and posit the possibility of universal music.

Fitch, W. T. (2005), The Evolution of Music in Comparative Perspective. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1060: 29–49. doi: 10.1196/annals.1360.004;jsessionid=E6A556FFCEC405A4F507649E37E1B40E.d02t03?v=1&t=he67url4&s=532e03e24b7dc922e52e9cf6c08f03a3a28d6d92.

Fitch is of the University of St. Andrews School of Psychology in Scotland and is primarily concerned with affects of music on behavior and the brain.  This article is an academic journal on the evolution of music.  Fitch’s article is more scientific in nature and would conflict with some of the religious and speculative notions of development of human music from birdsong in Head’s article.  Fitch describes the parallels of birdsong development to human development of language and identifies the purpose behind specific types of birdsong.

Head, Matthew. “Birdsong and the Origins of Music.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association, Vol. 122, No. 1 (1997), pp. 1-23. Web.

Matthew Head has extensively studied music at Yale and Oxford and current works as a reader in musicology, giving him ample knowledge of the nuances of sound.  This article looks at music from an academic, and historical angle.  Angier would connect Head’s concepts of the biological origin of music with her own claims that human’s have a musical center in the brain.  Head chronicles the possible influences of birdsong on human development of music and explains the objections to those theories.

Tingley, Kim. “Whisper of the Wild.” The New York Times. 15 Mar. 2012.  Web.

Tingley is an online columnist for OnEarth Magazine, and while she does not necessarily present ample knowledge of the topic of her article, she provides first hand accounts from her interviewees.  The article is geared toward the everyday reader, with audio tracks available to supplement the article.  Tingley and Atema would agree about the importance of studying soundscapes as a whole to understand ecosystems.  The concept of noise pollution drowning out natural sounds provides evidence for human ignorance of the elements of birdsong.