Birds as Keynote Sounds of Human and Environmental Soundscapes

I am focusing on changing human interpretations of the musicality of birdsong over time. By focusing on biological, religious, and creative contexts, I will reveal the environmental and ecological importance of understanding animal noises.  Studying the sounds of birds and other animals will foster generations of people who focus on listening to environmental soundscapes.  Bird songs are examples of Schafer’s “keynote sounds” that may not be consciously heard by people, but nevertheless influence the character of human society.  Over time soundscapes will morph and change as society grows, but active listeners will hear the beauty of the natural world and will seek to protect the environment from invading sound pollution.  Additionally, listening to soundscapes of nature can provide musicians with inspiration to develop more creative music forms.  Through this process bird sounds can contribute toward the positive progression of human soundscapes.


Bird Sounds

The above clip includes various bird songs and other calls.  These sounds illustrate the musicality of birds as well as provide a relaxing and meditative atmosphere.  Listening to natural soundscapes provides a break from the loud and often grating noises of human society.  Examining natural soundscapes as a whole allows individuals to understand how different bird species interact and respond to environmental stimuli.  Additionally, listeners should note their own responses as they listen to natural landscapes to discern any instinctual, emotional, or intellectual reactions to the sounds.


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.      Continue reading