A menagerie of intervals

Birding is a term that describes what birdwatchers do when they observe and catalog the species of birds they hear and see around them.  In birding competitions, such as the New Jersey Audubon World Series of Birding, teams of birdwatchers compete to see which one can identify the greatest number of bird species by sight or sound.  While identifying bird songs ‘by ear’ is a common approach, apps such as Song Sleuth have been developed to provide technological assistance to those looking to identify birds by sound.  The article I linked to in the last sentence on identifying birds by ear includes the suggestion: ‘If it’s a complicated song, figure out how many notes it has. Do all the notes have the same tone and vibe? Does the tune rise or fall?’ 

The development of this skill for birders is very similar to the way in which musicians learn to identify intervals, or in other words, use scale steps to measure the distance between two notes,  in what is called ‘ear training’.   Musicians can learn to identify intervals through studying a list of  pop and folk tunes, or a list of jazz tunes, in which iconic phrases from songs are associated with the intervals they demonstrate.  In this post I am proposing a new approach to the study of intervals, using bird songs found in nature and in tunes by jazz and pop song composers which quote those bird songs. While many jazz standards refer to birds in the title (such as ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ or ‘Skylark’) or somewhere in their lyrics (as in ‘Stella by Starlight’ and ‘Moonlight in Vermont’), there are a smaller number of tunes in which the composers incorporate the songs of actual birds into the melody.  A number of these tunes quote the birdsongs with some accuracy, because they imitate birds whose songs can be mapped onto the major scale.  This makes these tunes a useful introduction to the study of melodic intervals and ear training for musicians, as well as possibly a musical introduction to some bird songs for aspiring birders.  I have found tunes that directly quote bird songs to match the first four intervals in the major scale (the major 2nd, major 3rd and the perfect 4th and 5th); for the major sixth and seventh intervals, I have found tunes associated with birds, although not with particular birdsongs. 

Descending Major second (mi – re):  ‘I’ve Told Every Little Star’ by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein (House Finch) and Le Rossignol En Amour by Francois Couperin (Nightingale)

Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein wrote about this tune in a letter to his colleague Sigmund Romberg: ‘Jerry [Jerome Kern] got the melodic theme from a bird.  He swears it!  He heard a finch outside his window singing the first line and he built a refrain on it. Incidentally,’ Hammerstein added, ‘Ev’ry Little Star proved to be a stubborn tune and for a whole summer resisted my efforts to set words to it.  There were times during those hot August days when I wished the finch had kept his big mouth shut!’  There is a five-note motive in the second measure of this tune (accompanied by the words ‘Every Little Star’ in vocal versions such as those by Bing Crosby and Jacob Collier) in which four repeated notes are followed by a descending major second.  This motive does bear a resemblance to the excerpt of a House Finch song on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site, which begins with two similar five-note motives.  This tune has been interpreted by jazz performers including Cannonball Adderley (on a recording with Wynton Kelly on piano) and Marian McPartland (in a duet with guitarist Jackie King.)  McPartland and King’s version include a number of delightful passages of collective improvisation, while Adderley includes additional ii-V progression that makes the harmonies more challenging for an improviser to navigate.

A piece from classical keyboard repertoire which makes frequent use of major seconds to emulate birdsong is ‘Le Rossignol En Amour’ (The Nightingale In Love) by Francois Couperin.  In light of current reports of environmental decline due to climate change, it is comforting to note that Nightingale songs from our era (such as the one that can be heard around the one minute mark in this recording) still bear a resemblance to the musical impression of the Nightingale in Couperin’s piece from four centuries ago.

Descending major third (la – fa and mi – do): ‘When The Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along’ by Harry Woods

The melody of this tune, memorably performed by Louis Armstrong, uses a descending major third on the repeated lyrics ‘wake up’, ‘get up’, ‘cheer up’.   While Armstrong puts his own melodic spin on these phrases, he sings the two-note motive as written at least once on each lyric (Bing Crosby sings the two-note motive as written, although his interpretation does not quite have the energy and invention of the version by his idol Armstrong.)  Armstrong’s version is also a tour de force of improvisation techniques, including quoting (the trombone lick at the end of the introduction quotes an earlier Armstrong trumpet solo on ‘Hotter Than That’), trading (in the section following Armstrong’s vocal melody) and collective improvisation (in the tutti chorus that follows the trades.)  

As the podcast Birdnote has explained, the American Robin has a much wider vocabulary than the two-note bird in the song.  The Robin improvises in much the same way as many jazz players, by drawing from a personal vocabulary of ‘10 to 20 different caroling phrases’ and alternating between them and a ‘treasury of 75 to 100 different whispered notes’ to create songs that can go on ‘for minutes without a pause.’ Although this level of variety can be heard in a recent Robin song from Ilinois, the midwestern bird does a number of times include the descending major third heard in ‘Red, Red Robin’, on the pitches F6 to Db6.  (I am using ‘6’ here to refer to the sixth octave of the piano.)  (A decent piano arrangement of this tune is available in the Faber and Faber ShowTime Jazz and Blues collection and is demonstrated in this keyboard video.)

Ascending and descending perfect fourth (re – so and so – do): ‘Bob White’ (Johnny Mercer) and ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Main Theme)’ by Ennio Morricone

Johnny Mercer’s and Bernie Hanighen’s tune ‘Bob White (Whatcha Gonna Swing Tonight?)’, which was recorded by vocalist Carmen McRae with saxophonist Ben Webster, uses the interval of an ascending fourth on the title phrase.   One can hear in this sound clip of a Bobwhite birdsong from the Macaulay library how some Bobwhite songs can be interpreted as a perfect fourth. 

I will make an exception to the bird theme here for Ennio Morricone’s Main Theme from his score to the film ‘The Good The Bad and the Ugly, as its musical impression of a coyote howl – a five-note motive alternating between ascending and descending fourths – is one of the most iconic uses of this interval.  As Morricone said in an interview with the Guardian, ‘I can’t take the credit for the coyote howl – that was the work of the coyote.’  In the recording of coyotes howling on this page, one can hear how some of the responding howls around :24 can be heard as a perfect fourth.    Morricone’s theme was given a great jazz interpretation by Quincy Jones who featured Herbie Hancock (contributing a characteristically side-slipping electric piano solo) and vocalist Patti Austin (who does some remarkable doubling of Hancock’s lines.)  Jones’ version adds Morricone’s theme to the many modern jazz melodies that feature perfect fourths prominently, including Wayne Shorter’s ‘E.S.P.’, Eddie Harris’ ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’ and Ornette Coleman’s ‘Lonely Woman’.  (Sheet music for the original Morricone theme is available from musicnotes.com in more basic and more challenging versions.)

Perfect fifth (do -so)  – The Sunset and the Mockingbird, Serenade to A Cuckoo, The Peacocks

Morricone’s coyotes from his 1966 theme bear a striking resemblance to Duke Ellington’s evocation of a Mockingbird in his piece ‘The Sunset and the Mockingbird’, recorded seven years earlier in 1959.  Where Morricone’s coyotes sing a perfect fourth, Ellington’s Mockingbird, played by the piano, uses an ascending and descending perfect fifth.  Ellington describes the song’s creation in this passage from his biography, ‘Music is my Mistress’: “One evening we were a little late leaving Tampa, Florida, en route to West Palm Beach to make a gig. The weather was wonderful and it was just about sunset when, halfway across Florida, we passed a bird. We didn’t see it, but we heard its beautiful call. I asked Harry (Carney) if he heard it and he said, “Yeah.” We were a little too pushed for time, and going too fast to stop or go back and thank the bird, so I pulled out my pencil and paper and wrote that lovely phrase down. I spent the next two or three days whistling it to the natives, and inquiring what kind of bird it could have been that sang such a beautiful melody. Finally, I was convinced it had to be a mockingbird. I made an orchestration around that melody, titled it “Sunset And The Mocking Bird” and included it in the Queen’s Suite as one of the “beauty” experiences of my life.” Ellington’s initial melody statement on piano exactly matches one of the Mockingbird’s calls, which can be heard by clicking on ‘Song #1’ at  Audobon.org’s Northern Mockingbird page.   A good (but advanced) piano arrangement of Ellington’s tune from Tommy Flanagan’s trio version can be found in The Tommy Flanagan Collection published by Hal Leonard.

The perfect fifth has also been other jazz composers to evoke other birds.  The second half of the melody in Rashaan Roland Kirk’s ‘Serenade to a Cuckoo’ includes a repeated descending perfect 5th (starting in in m. 9) which is a clear reference to cuckoo calls such as this one.  A film clip of Kirk using his flute to serenade and converse with animals at the zoo while his son sits on his shoulders is a moving example of his ability to create music out of unusual circumstances.  While the clip clearly includes some editing of sound and image, it also clearly represents actual interaction between Kirk and animals.  ‘Serenade to a Cuckoo’ may be known to rock fans through a cover version recorded by the band Jethro Tull which, while it sounds anemic in comparison to Kirk’s original version, demonstrates the extent to which flutist Ian Anderson’s playing is inspired by the tradition of jazz flute playing.  A lead sheet for Kirk’s tune (i.e. single staff melody with chord symbols above) can be purchased at jazzleadsheets.com (also a great resource for a number of his other tunes.)

The Peacocks’ by pianist Jimmy Rowles has become something of a jazz standard, having been recorded by Bill Evans and more recently vocalist Jazzmeia Horn.  The first two notes of the melody are an ascending 5th which is then quickly followed by a repeated descending 5th that mirrors Ellington’s Mockingbird (this can be heard in Horn’s vocal version on the lyric ‘out into a pattern never ending.’)   In the bridge of ‘The Peacocks’, Rowles makes the highly unusual choice of a repeated minor 7th leap (which can be heard on the last two syllables of the phrases where Horn sings ‘but somehow I’ and ‘I’m drowning now’.)   Although this interval appears rarely in jazz melodies and even more rarely in popular song melodies,  it was used by Alexander Courage to evoke space travel in the theme to the original Star Trek TV series, and by Leonard Bernstein to evoke an idealized future in ‘Somewhere’ from the musical West Side Story.  It seems possible that Rowles’ use of this interval is related to the wide intervals sung by peacocks in their calls, such as the one that can be heard around :28 in this video

Descending major sixth (mi – so) – Western Meadowlark – ‘Mister Meadowlark’

The more complex song of the Western Meadowlark, which can be heard here in a recent post in the Macaulay library, is evoked in Dave Brubeck’s tune Strange Meadowlark.  If one compares the bird’s song from the first link with the composer’s opening phrase (introduced by saxophonist Paul Desmond after a piano intro), it sounds as though Brubeck may have just added two interstitial notes between the first two notes of the bird’s song.  (Transposable sheet music with lyrics for Brubeck’s tune can be purchased here.)  Another recorded Western Meadowlark song includes the leap of an ascending major sixth.  The same interval in the reverse direction (the descending major sixth) appears in the opening of Mister Meadowlark by Walter Donaldson and Johnny Mercer, which was recorded by Carmen McRae on the same album where her version of ‘Bob White’ appears (‘Birds of a Feather’.)

Major seventh (do – ti) – Conference of the Birds

Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds features two contrapuntal flute lines, played by Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers, which weave around one another in 5/4 time.  Holland features a major seventh in the seventh measure of the melody, in the lower of the two lines.  While Holland’s tune does not to my knowledge involve a specific birdsong, it does, like the McPartland and Armstrong performances mentioned above, use collective improvisation to evoke the sound of multiple birds. 

While all these tunes evoking bird songs by jazz and popular song composers seem to have been more or less anomalous works within the careers of each composer, there are at least two composers outside the jazz world who made encyclopedic attempts to catalog and utilize birdsong in human music.  In 1904 the American naturalist, composer and artist F. Schuyler Mathews published his Field Guide to Wild Birds and Their Music, a glossary of bird songs rendered in musical notation.  It was featured in this NPR story and is available here as a free ebook.  Later in the twentieth century, the  French composer and organist Olivier Messiaen, made extensive use of birdsong in pieces such as Reveil de Oiseaux (Awakening of the Birds) where he lists in the score the birds being emulated by the piano and other instruments. 

On a personal note, the album which my quartet Birdcode has recently released, You Are Here, includes a tune by pianist and composer Dan Skea named after the Indigo Bunting.  (As of this writing, the tune can be streamed on Soundcloud.)  For me, this lovely melody evokes not so much the bird’s song as the experience of watching its graceful flight.  I was lucky enough to know Dan when he lived in Vermont and to have heard his marvelous playing and writing, which can still be heard on his YouTube channel.  He was also a jazz scholar who expertly notated much of the music he performed and wrote both an important article and a longer unpublished work on the hugely influential jazz recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder.  Dan’s grasp of Van Gelder’s often overlooked innovations was unique enough that he was quoted in Van Gelder’s New York Times obituary two years ago.  It makes sense that Dan had a gift for identifying the importance of an innovator who excelled at supporting other artists, as he was a player who was equally lyrical and expressive as an accompanist and as a soloist (something that can only be said of a short list of pianists, Oscar Peterson and Hank Jones among them.) 

Dan died in May of this year after a long career which included work with artists ranging from Wayne Newton to Wes Montgomery’s bass playing brother Monk Montgomery (check out his solo on the tune Sippin’ and Tippin’ from Monk’s album ‘Reality’.)  He spent significant amounts of time in New Mexico, Vermont and Virginia, which I notice on the Indigo Bunting’s ‘Range Map’ are all areas frequented by this beautiful bird.  Dan will be missed by many music lovers, but his music, like the namesake of his beautiful tune, will always be in the air somewhere. 

Lately I’ve been inspired by the mystical pursuit which F. Schuyler Mathews, Roland Kirk, and Olivier Messiaen made, of transcribing birdsong for use by human musicians.  I have been recording birdsongs near my house and will transcribe and share them in a future blog post.  They may make their way into a composition or two.  Stay tuned! 

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70 Responses to A menagerie of intervals

  1. Corby Guba says:

    I really liked this blog post, it’s always interesting to see how musicians make music that is constantly reinterpreting the world around us. While reading I thought of the song “duvet” by bôa, partially because there’s birds on the cover art but also because the song has some qualities reminiscent of bird calls. The song starts with a VI, i, iv, i progression in B minor. (G, bm, em, bm). The repeating melody notes B-A-E-F# in the chorus sound similar to a bird call, particularly the jump from B to E.

  2. Cal McCandless says:

    Thinking on intervals brings to mind a piano lesson I had recently. I was gearing up with a real book for the Jazz Harmony class and looking at some of the most played jazz standards to try and play the changes from one to the next. “Blue Bossa” by Kenny Dorham has an octave leap between the first two notes, making the beginning of the melody easy to remember! I’m not sure if there’s much of a link between the song and birdsong. Maybe some quality of the melodic lines overlap with a similar factor in birdsong, but I’d be curious to know if you think so, too!

  3. Paige Cohen says:

    This was really interesting to read! One song I love is “The Ghost in You” specifically the version done by Robyn Hitchcock. An area of the song I find interesting is when he sings “…is the news of the day. Angels fall like rain”. The word “the” to the word “news” I believe in an ascending perfect 5th. Also, the second sentence is a descending lines where the intervals get bigger as it goes along. This post really made me think about how much nature is mentioned and evoked in music. It makes me think about how birds and musicians can actually be quite similar; birds relay different types of messages such as beauty or warnings, etc. through their calls and musicians relay messages with themes ranging all different types of emotions through the melodies they use. One song that ironically evokes wildlife is “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons. Many may think it’s just a cool, techno kind of song, however if you really listen to the lyrics, it is about what the world could look like if we don’t stop killing our earth. It makes me want to really stop climate change because I would hate to lose the beautiful land we live on.

  4. tgcleary says:

    Hi Zia, Thanks for the comment. One term that could be used to describe what you are calling the ‘main melody’ is ‘prechorus’. I think the effectiveness of the melody is the way it builds toward the higher range of Rodrigo’s voice. The descending intervals you describe are in her lower range, and what I would call the chorus (‘bloodsucker’ etc.) has the most sustained notes in the higher range.

  5. Zia Gonzalez says:

    A song with an interesting melodic interval that came to mind was the song “Vampire” by Olivia Rodrigo. The chorus is built on the following chord progression: Gm, C7, F, A7. Then the same melodic line starts to repeat with different chords: Bb, Bbm, and then the melodic line changes with the same chords: F and A7. What I find interesting is how the artist uses the chords and intervals in the melody in repetition, but still is able to push the melody forward and lead us to the final line/resolution. In terms of the intervals, the main melody repeats the following pattern at the end of each line, each starting from the tonic (F): Descending m3 (lyrics: some real), descending 4th (the worst), descending 4th (have known), descending M3(-ly come). While I can identify the intervals and the chords in this melodic line, I would like to know more about why this particular structure is so effective in leading us to the final breakthrough line of the chorus.

  6. Maclan Roberts says:

    This was very interesting! As I was reading I was thinking about Adrianne Lenker’s album, “songs”. She recorded this album in a cabin in the woods in Massachusetts, surrounded by nature. Throughout the album you can often hear birds singing faintly in the background between her fingerpicked acoustic guitar and beautiful vocals. One song from this album that features a prominent upward leap is “Zombie Girl”. In the last section of the song, when Adrianne sings “your mind” she goes from an Ab to a C. This leap is gorgeous and, if you listen closely enough, you will hear birds singing along with her.

  7. Tobias Siegel says:

    In “STAY” By The Kid Laroi and Justin Bieber, there’s a major 6th interval jump up that happens repeatedly in every chorus. It is really slickhard to sing–definitely a lot of slick editing going on. Charlie Puth produced and cowrote the track and is open about his techniques which involve singing each individual note then sequencing them together. In terms of the article, I thought Rahsaan Roland Kirk interacting with the animals at the zoo was really interesting. It reminded me of those videos where dogs or cats or parrots will bob their head to the beats of songs showing they have some understanding of music. Another song that evokes wildlife is “Champagne Supernova” by Oasis. At around the 5:40 mark there are some birds chirping which I think are actually recorded birds and not an intimations on guitar.

  8. efarris2 says:

    A motif that evokes more so the wild than just wildlife in general for me would have to be in Frozen 2. The motif is heard throughout the film, but notably when the artist Aurora sings it at the beginning of “Into the Unknown”. The melody is overall descending (though it goes down, up, down) at the beginning of the song, but it has variations throughout the movie. This blog post about bird songs and nature made me think of this movie because that voice and motif is used to call out to Elsa, guiding her to the enchanted forest, and then eventually guiding her through her character arc throughout the movie, which revolves around nature partly.

  9. Theo Northrop says:

    A song that I thought of after reading this was a Jazz standard I worked on quite a bit last semester, “Blue Bossa” composed by Kenny Dorham. The standard features an octave leap up during the pickup at the beginning of the melody. An excellent recording of it by Dexter Gordon features this pickup and melodic leap at 0:11. While the song has no direct connection to birdsong that I know of, it does have a repetitive nature that seems to ebb and flow in a tidal way and slow as it reaches the end of each melodic line. It was very interesting to read about these songs that were inspired by birdsong and makes me curious about how common it is for songs to be inspired by sounds in nature.

  10. tgcleary says:

    Hi Bea, Thanks for your comment on ‘Isn’t She Lovely’. As we’ll learn, in the world of jazz harmony, which thinks of chords more inclusively than theory based on the harmony of the classical tradition, an F# over a C#m isn’t a non-chord tone, but rather the 11th (i.e. the 4th step of the minor scale, but sitting atop the seventh chord structure.) Stevie, who is a heavily jazz-influenced player and composer, uses voicings in the intro that show this inclusive concept – for example, he uses what I’d call a 3-7-9 voicing of the second chord in the tune. The third chord, called a B11 in the sheet music but which could also be described as A6/B, also uses the 9th (C#).

  11. Bea Halderman says:

    This was a great read! One topic revolving around intervals that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is suspensions. Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” is a classic soul tune that uses this technique in such a simple yet effective way. When the song reaches the word “lovely” in the chorus, it sits on an F# before sliding down a major second to an E. However, when Stevie hits that F# it sits over a C#-7, a chord that doesn’t feature F#. It does feature E, so when Stevie eventually reaches that chord tone, it makes the movement feel so impactful despite just being a major second. It’s such a classic technique to add tension and interest to a tune, and it works so well here.

  12. Ben Guggina says:

    One of my favorite songs right now, “You Go To My Head,” features an octave leap at the start of the melody pulling the listener in. There are two versions of this song that I have really been enjoying, a faster paced version from Bill Evans’ album Interplay, and a slower more melancholy one recorded by Chet Baker. In the two different versions the leap provides a different sort of emotion for the listener to start off the piece with. One a bittersweet sense of longing, the other a feeling of joy and happiness that one associates with love. It is very interesting how the feel and tempo completely change (in my opinion) the emotion behind the song, while maintaining the same melody.

  13. Luca Medina says:

    One of my favorite standards, “I Love You” by Cole Porter, uses a descending major 7th interval in the A section. In the key of F, the melody begins on C (“I love”) and moves to a low Db (“you”), and repeats the theme on the A in the same octave as C and moves to a low Bb. It’s definitely a difficult song to sing clearly with such a jarring melodic jump in its first phrase and a large overall range of an octave and a 5th, but it has a beautiful melodic contour that accentuates great extensions on the tune’s changes (ex. 11 to b5 on G-7b5, 9 to b3 on G-7, landing on the 6th and 9th of major 7th chords). It’s also fun to use large intervallic leaps as a theme while improvising over the tune. There are a bunch of great versions out there, but listening to Judy Garland sing it later in her career feels very heroic:

  14. Dylan Reich says:

    Reading about all these makes me think about The Chick Corea Song “Guijira.” ‘The earworm of the song is the first phrase of the melody. Despite the overt connections between flute and birds, the part where there’s a 7th leap and the D is sustained evokes a phrase akin to that of a Bird I’ve heard in the past. This whole melody feels dated to another era, even for 1969. It’s akin to a beautiful oasis, with but subtle hints of the doom on the horizon.


  15. Pat Boll says:

    One tune that specifically reminds me of a birds song is the song “Green Finch and Linet Bird” from the soundtrack to Sweeney Todd by Stephen Sondheim. The song is about a character named Johanna who is trapped in her home, and how she compares that to being like a caged bird, and so rapid and large melodic distances are played on flutes to mimic the sound of birds tweeting.

  16. Pat Boll says:

    One of my favorite examples of an interval is one that I often use to find what other intervals are, and it’s the intro of “What are you going to do when you’re not saving the world?” From the soundtrack to Man Of Steel by Hans Zimmer. At around 32 seconds we hear the interval of a perfect fifth going from C to G.

  17. Aiden Coli says:

    It’s really inspiring to see all the different places musicians can and will find inspiration for their next song, the coyote howl surprised me! While it might be more of a slide than a leap, this made me think of the prominent descending minor sixth at the opening of Strayhorn’s “Take The ‘A’ Train” as featured in the Ellington Orchestra, meant to imitate a train’s horn as it flies past you (The drop as explained by the Doppler effect http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/Sound/dopp.html) . After the intro featured in the video (posted at the bottom) the top of the song the piano immediately cuts in with this interval, setting the tone of the piece, a busy day at the station, and you’ve got a train to catch!
    The version of “Take The ‘A’ Train” I’m referring to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cb2w2m1JmCY

  18. A tune that resonates in the use of wildlife is “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. In this piece, The most prominent leap for me is the major sixth that Terrell sings right before the first chorus (0:27).
    Furthermore, in this piece Gaye and Terrell compare the extremes of many geographical locations (mountains, valley, rivers) and claim that their love would sustain these vast obstacles. Alongside geography, the second verse/bridge contains rainy and snowy climates that their love would overcome still, further adding to the use of nature in this piece.
    Something that interested me while reading the blog and other comments is the use of the nightingale representing positivity or hope due to the bird’s pleasant song that it sings in nature.

  19. Lindsey Rusnock says:

    Sometimes listening to this music that may have such a simple reference to the world around me, can go right over my head! This was super interesting and is going to make me pay closer attention to the music I listen to. This post made me think of Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals, specifically The Swan, which has an easily identifiable recurring theme that makes use of two perfect fifths and a perfect fourth. I think because of the perfect intervals, it makes this theme easy to remember (and get stuck in your head), as well as evoking the image of a graceful swan.

  20. rambaye says:

    This was a very interesting article! It made me take a step outside of myself and think of humans singing as being as natural as a bird singing. Another thing this article reminded me of was one of my favorite podcasts (https://podcast.duolingo.com/episode-7-la-melodie-de-la-martinique-the-sound-of-martinique) that talks about how musician Christophe Chassol used the bird sounds of birds from his parents’ home country Martinique, to create his album Big Sun (found on streaming services such as Spotify under Chassol). In some instances Christophe uses actual recordings of birds, and in others he imitates the intervals these birds sing on his own instruments. It is a fascinating podcast as well as a great and colorful album. Check out one of my favorites from this album: Pipornithology, Pt. II (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PksnZ0wFFvA).

  21. Pigeon Purdue says:

    This was a fascinating article! I’ve always been interested in the interplay between natural ambiance and purposefully composed music. While I don’t know if it was the intended effect, in “The Crow” from Steve Martin’s album The Crow: New Songs For the Five-String Banjo, the sharp, high banjo notes could be interpreted as the harsh call of a crow, especially starting at 0:36 where they become more prominent and repetitive.

  22. Daniel Winger says:

    The first wildlife-evoking song that comes to my mind is “Mysterious River Snake” by The Sweet Enoughs (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XgldIbGJ-4k). The song has a percussive backdrop of crickets and shakers that give the impression that you’re slithering through tall grass along a river. It’s a cool song, great for accompanying a solo walk through the woods.

  23. Jamie Hackett says:

    Really really interesting post! The parallels and relationships between music and nature are fascinating! One simple example of the major third interval can be found in the second two notes of the melody of “A Nightingale Sang,” one of my all-time favorite tunes. I’m not sure if this tune actually quotes a bird song, but it definitely evokes nature in its themes. The tune itself is about a bird song after-all. Another set of songs that uses bird songs and mimics their tonality can be found in Porter Robinson’s album “Nurture.” The first song “lifelike” features a background melody which is an alternating ascending and descending fifth, and mimics the tonality of a bird call. One question the post brings up to me is just how much there is to learn about musicality and tonality from nature itself. It seems like the further you dive, the more parallels you can find between the two!

  24. Matthew Linkkila says:

    One of my favorite jazz charts, “Jitterbug Waltz” by Fats Waller, contains a repeated descending major 3rd (from about the beginning but it varies a tad based on the recording) that I find quite pleasing to the ear. This really made me reflect on how often I hear music as though it were sung or played by something else, and how fascinating it is that our brains are even capable of recreating sound for us. This might be a bit of a stretch, but one part of a song that has always really felt “alive” to me is the synthesizer solo from Bright Eyes’ “Weather Reports”(at around the 1:22 mark). Synthesizers are the furthest music can be from being physically alive, but somehow the currents they create often emulate a life of their own, whether it’s a saw wave reminiscent of buzzing bees or a shrill scream that sounds remarkably human.

  25. bgansle says:

    Fantastic blog! Being classically trained, I’ve always had an appreciation for how music correlated with nature. One piece that comes to mind is Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite. Right around the 2:40 mark, the orchestra Burt’s into a lively melody with a prominent fifth interval jump. This piece perfectly represents the beauty of the American landscape, and even though it was written in 1944, it evokes a vision of the West during the 1860s. Here’s a link: https://youtu.be/Q4Qt0AIRK-0

  26. hfigler says:

    Coltrane’s Giant Steps is a tune that prominently incorporates descending major and minor thirds as the melody’s main motif, beginning with a major third from F# down to D, then contrasted by a minor third from D to B, followed by another major third from B to G, concluded by an ascending minor third from G to Bb. This major and minor third pattern is repeated in the next line but starts on the D instead of the F.

    Also, Spring from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons incorporates bird songs really well by having violins in a high octave play staccato notes which emulate birds chirping and three-note phrases and trills that emulate bird song.

  27. Tom Boger-Hawkins says:

    Your discussion about the imitation of bird calls in music makes me think of the other creative ways that artists have tried to more closely reflect their worlds, whether external or internal, through their music. One specific piece that comes to mind is I Am Sitting In A Room by Alvin Lucier, in which he plays back a recording of him talking over and over again, and the resonant frequencies of the room eventually reinforce themselves and make a really subtly beautiful stretching sort of sound that drowns out his voice. It’s meditative in a cool way and for me serves as a reminder of how musical the background noise of our lives is. If we want to make intriguing music, we can always fall back to what we usually consider silence and find rich soundscapes within the quietness. All we have to do is listen.

  28. Alex McPhedran says:

    The first piece that came to me after reading about the use of bird calls for musical ideas and melodies was Herbie Hancock’s ‘Watermelon Man’. In the 1973 recording on his album ‘Head Hunters,’ the introduction of the piece is made of a slow, building vamp on an F dominant seventh chord with a sharp 9. At the very beginning, an airy, owl-sounding call repeats the same measure-long sequence as other vocal chops and samples join the vamp. This initial sound comes from Hindewhu, a style of whistling from Central Africa, and adds a mystical and mysterious sound. Though the rest of the piece follows very typical blues form aside from Hancock’s impressive chord variations, the use of the owl-sounding sample at the beginning piques the listener’s interest and adds a unique feel.

  29. Liv Deschenes says:

    This was really interesting to read about! I love how birdcalls and nature in general can be implemented into human music, be annotated and also related to our interval scale system. This reminds me of an article I read about birds and animals’ influence on composers and classical music! I think it’s really cool and very skillful when musicians can imitate animals or nature with their instruments. Like Cheryl Wheeler using string instruments in “The Storm” to mimic screeching wind. Or various composers drawing from animal sounds in their pieces. Here’s the article this reminded me of: https://www.classical-music.com/features/articles/how-birds-and-animals-and-have-inspired-and-shaped-classical-music/

  30. Flavin says:

    The ability to “map” sounds such as birdsong onto a major scale for humans to replicate on an instrument is one of the brilliant aspects of music itself. Music is so often used by humans to understand or imitate nature in a way that goes beyond the expanses of human perception of the world around them. As a cellist, my thoughts immediately go to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: Spring when considering representations of birdsong in music, for he used orchestral instruments to represent the menagerie of sounds that emerge and blend during the changing of seasons.

  31. Josh Glenn says:

    I find it fascinating how wild animals that “sing” or produce melodic noises almost adhere to our standard conception of musical notation and intervals. Despite our understanding of music being one outcome of centuries of refinement, many creatures have behaviors that align with our musical practices. Animals not just like birds, but also coyotes can have their sounds be replicated using fairly simple notation. Perhaps music and our signification of melodic content are more innate than we may realize.

    An artist I am enjoying recently is Masakatsu Takagi, and his “Marginalia” series. This series and his album Marginalia III in particular was created to emulate nature and to use natural sounds as a musical influence. In Marginalia III, Takagi literally accompanies a small group of birds singing outside his window on the song “Marginalia #61”. Takagi has said that in this song, it was his intention to accompany the bird, using the birdsong as the main melodic focal point for the entire piece. I find it to be quite moving and beautiful.

    One pop song that I find particularly interesting is “We Are Young” by fun. due to its use of the minor 6th during the chorus when they sing “so lets set the world on fire”. When “fire” is sung, an ascending minor 6th leap is made, an interval that is not too common for pop music.

  32. Henry Guckes says:

    An interesting aspect of this subject to think about is how the instrument that the individual quoting the bird song plays impacts their understanding of it. It might be easier to quote these licks on a woodwind instrument than a keyboard or stringed instrument.

  33. Griffin DeMatteo says:

    The song “Migrant Mother” by the Canadian group Protest the Hero features a minor 6th jump at the start of the chorus. At 1:24 in the song, singer Rody Walker jumps from a G to an Eb while singing the idiom, “He that would the daughter win”, between “the” and “daugh”. This example comes to mind so quickly because the interval is large and sung a capella during a break in the instrumentation.

    I also have recently become a fan of Cosmo Sheldrake, who has a full album (called “Wake up Calls”) of compositions written as background for bird songs. Here is just one song off that project called “Nightjar”.

  34. Connor Davis says:

    I thought this was a really interesting article and I thought it was cool to think about the comparison between birders identifying a kind of bird based on it’s call/song to how musicians identify intervals based on the relationship of two notes. In the song Morning Dew by Matt Quentin there are bird chirps and songs starting a little bit before 25 seconds. If I’m not mistaken, there is an ascending minor third that is played between an Ab and a B on guitar that hangs and rings out for a little bit at the same time that bird songs fill the space.

    I don’t know a lot about birds or the differences in sounds that they make but I wonder if this bird call in particular means something towards the message that the artist was trying to portray in the song. While it is an instrumental song (no vocals), the name of the song is “Morning Dew”. It makes me curious if this bird song is from a bird that is a bird that sings in the morning.

  35. Liam Perl says:

    Reading this article was super enlightening, I never really thought about breaking birdsong down into intervals. It almost seemed outside the realm of music theory, but this article made it clear that birdsong, just like any famous melody can be used as a helpful tool in learning music theory. No song with a specific melodic interval came to mind while reading for me, but this article did remind me of the song “Pink+White” by Frank Ocean: which uses recording of birdsong in the background to create ambiance.

  36. Kaylee Baker says:

    I found this article very interesting. Reading this article reminded me of a song called The Birdwatcher by Vulfpeck. The trill in the melody of the song imitates a bird, and the song was inspired by the hobby of birdwatching.

  37. Emilia Winquist says:

    Ornithology has always been one of my favorite jazz tunes, and since ‘ornithology’ is literally the study of birds, and I’ve always assumed it was inspired by bird calls. Listening to it, it also has the kind of constant flow of a bird chattering away, and when a phrase is pulled apart, it can almost always be morphed into something that could sound like a birdcall. Upon looking into it further, I actually stumbled across your blog post about the song in particular, and realized that that might not really be the case – even if it still seems to evoke similar ideas. I’d be curious to know if it still could have a more direct link to a specific birdsong!

  38. Zach Lerner says:

    The mention of the Jazz standard ‘Skylark’ instantly reminded me of the song ‘Goodbye Blue Sky’ by Pink Floyd. This song actually begins with the sound of a skylark’s chirp, and this sound fades as the mood of the song darkens.

  39. Forest Zabriskie says:

    “Blackbird” by the Beatles is an instance in which an actual recorded birdsong is incorporated into the music, rather than just imitated. I find this fascinating because it is not just thrown in as background noise, it actually creates a bit of a countermelody to Paul’s singing. I also noticed that the intervals used throughout the song in the guitar part (can be heard very clearly starting around 0:58) don’t follow the birdcall exactly, but they create a musical canvas on which the addition of a blackbird’s vocal performance feels natural and melodic.

  40. Josie Gillen says:

    The first song that came to mind when reading this blog post was “Green Finch and Linnett Bird” from Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd. The song obviously references birds and uses woodwinds to imitate birdsong.

  41. Lucas says:

    While quarantining with my family, I would whistle the first three notes of “Sid’s Ahead” to replace the phrase “good-morning.”

    “Sid’s Ahead” starts out with an F and a B natural right after, an ascending #3 or #11. It is then resolved with a fifth. “Neutralizing” the #11 is what makes whistling this tune so much fun.

  42. Tucker Smith says:

    In Mac Miller’s “Avian” he uses bird songs to introduce the song as a whole but also the vocals are continuously lifted up by these songs. Almost used ad adlibs in the chorus you can hear one song ascend the scale and one song descend, creating an up and down feel for the entire chorus. It actually inspired me to use bird songs in one of my songs.

  43. Alex Beshay says:

    What a creative approach to ear training!

    Check out this lyrebird which can imitate mechanical noises and other birds in its environment – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSB71jNq-yQ

    Recently I’ve been learning the tune ‘Night and Day’, and in the A section the melodic line descends by minor 2nd for 5 bars! It’s a very satisfying movement.

  44. Camden Barnes says:

    In the first section of Eryka Badu’s “Green Eyes” (around the 1:30 mark), she leaps up to a pretty stand out interval. I’m not sure what the interval is, but have always been fascinated with her vocal performance here, and the highlighted nature of the interval.

  45. Caleb Quittner says:

    I can’t say necessarily that this song was melodically informed by birdsong, but the one which came to mind while I read this article is a standard “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise”. The line that forms that connection for me is “the thrush on high, it’s sleepy mate is calling” which goes to show the pronounced influence that birds and birdsong have had on our culture, and the meaning of daybreak, or time of day, which certain species or even songs within species of bird can distinctively signify to even the untrained ear. I hear a rising ninth interval, descending third, and raised minor second at 23 seconds in this thrush-song recording: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0mATRdzZSc
    These morning songs seem much more upbeat than that of a loon or owl “singing” at night.

    I do however wonder what’s the meaning of the appeal of natural sounds to humans, and is it even likened to our appreciation for music, on a biological or scientific level? certainly there’s unconventional ways of making music. Like in the song Wildcat by Ratatat, there’s a wildcat roaring every few measures, but its unnerving effect becomes much more of a resolving sound for me when coupled with the upbeat, fast and anticipatory tempo of the song.

  46. Irene Choi says:

    Bird calls in relation to music reminds me of the classical piece “The Lark Ascending” by Vaughan Williams. Inspired by a poem of the same name, Vaughan Williams used the violin part to imitate the sound and flight of a bird. I think he captures the essence of birds perfectly in the piece; it’s flowing and elegant, reminiscent of a morning bird’s gentle call.

  47. Tom Cleary says:

    from Raphael Weiner via email:
    A tune I find intriguing featuring an interval is Bright Mississippi (By Thelonious Monk performed by Allen Toussaint https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCHddHp8OAw). The melody starts with descending thirds 5-3-1 in F. The chords and intervals don’t stay the same but after looking at the sheet music I was surprised to see that the first four bars of melody are just descending 3rds of an F chord.

  48. Zach Santos says:

    The tune with an emphasized interval I like is the classic Miles Davis tune Freddie Freeloader, because it’s very simple and straight to the point. The first interval stands out to me because of how long the notes are held out and how square and straight the rhythm is. The first note(a half note) starts on beat one and the second note that forms the interval starts on beat three. This interval is a descending major second, which, in concert pitch(B flat major) spans from G to F.

  49. Madeline Reilly says:

    This post was great, Tom, thank you! It’s so exciting to learn more about how much the natural world has influenced human musicians over time.
    I’ll Be Fine by Upstate (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6X0xPu4_wwI&list=PL4Um-uUqWbiUyQKAzrUKPNV5QT_lCsd2v&index=24&t=0s) begins with a recording of bird calls that fade out when the lyrics begin, but seem to be reinterpreted around 1:25 by a flute solo that leads into the song’s bridge. The actual birdsongs come back around 2:51, with a quick call and response between the flute and the birds.

  50. Van Garrison says:

    In the song grantchester meadows by Pink Floyd, the repeating interval past the first verse is from the fifth to the major 6th is played over recordings of birdsong. The birdsong being played has one part that sounds like it starts on the tonic and rolls down the pentatonic scale to the fifth in the same key (E). Thought it was an interesting combination of musical ideas.

  51. Bruno John says:

    To put a question to my previous comment about the nightingale song, what draws the attention of a listener the most? Is it change in rhythm, pitch or volume? Does it depend on the listener and the situation?

  52. Matt Skelly says:

    In Movement 6 of Ginastera’s 12 American Preludes (Tribute to Roberto Garcia Morillo), Ginastera makes extensive use of both the minor second and the perfect fourth. There is a recurring ostinato in the A section of the piece built on the minor second. In this ostinato, the left and right hands trade sixteenth notes, playing the pitches C to Db, respectively. In the B section of the piece, the right hand plays an arpeggio based on the perfect fourth, playing the pitches C-F-Bb-C in four octaves ascending, then C-Bb-F-C in four octaves descending.


  53. Bruno John says:

    I liked listening to the bird sounds from the link in paragraph 5 (nightingale at 1 minute mark). I really just clicked on it to see what a nightingale sounded like to have context but I ended up listening for much longer. I’m not completely sure what the nightingale sound was but the call that stood out the most to me around the 1 minute mark was the song where the beginnings of the notes were evenly spaced and started quiet and short and became long and loud. It was the only song with a drastic change in volume in the whole recording. I have seen musicians use this strategy to bring attention to themselves.

  54. tgcleary says:

    Sydney, you’ve made me wonder whether that opening phrase might have been meant to evoke
    a bird call – it certainly is evocative of birds. Nice example. In the second half of your comment, I think you might be referring to a Respighi piece – could you add a link?

  55. tgcleary says:

    Liam, Here’s a video of Hermeto using a flute to converse with some birds at a zoo, in much the way that Roland Kirk does in the video I linked to in the post:
    The video also includes some of his tune ‘Giao Da Roseira’, which translates roughly as ‘Jay of the Rose Bush’.

  56. tgcleary says:

    James, I think it’s likely that birds mimic human music, given that birds such as parrots can imitate sounds and voices with amazing accuracy. Check out the story of a parrot named Alex in this podcast:
    It would also be interesting from a world music perspective to see if any Middle Eastern music mimics bird songs like the pieces featured in this post and these comments.

  57. tgcleary says:

    Good call, Eli. The ‘enharmonically correct’ way to state the interval you mentioned is D# to B, as Coltrane is playing over an Emaj7 chord, and E is a sharp key. Your comment also made me think of how the lyrics to ‘My Favorite Things’ mention ‘wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings’, and the tone of the soprano saxophone is not unlikely that of the snow goose, as heard here: https://ebird.org/species/snogoo

  58. tgcleary says:

    Jesse – Check out these two short podcasts, which explain how different amounts of repetition in Chickadee calls send different messages…



  59. Jesse Leibman says:

    I wonder how important repetition is in bird calls, and how length in repeated phrases probably varies from bird to bird. Maybe there are some birds that have more random phrases but still repeat in some way after a while, and those would be harder to at least map with a computer in some way…

  60. James Doherty says:

    After reading this article I wondered if some bird songs ever mimic quarter tones commonly heard in Middle Eastern music.

  61. Sydney Cardoza says:

    The song “Close to You” by the Carpenters strongly exemplifies the use of a perfect 5th when the phrase “why do birds” is sung. It is interesting to consider how nature has influenced the melodies that are listened to every day and I wonder if when people hear bird calls that are imitated in songs they know if there is some type of deeper internal connection made to that tune. Il Cucú, an Italian work based off of the music of Pasquini quotes the song of a cuckoo.

  62. Eli Lewis says:

    In John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” lots of interesting intervals are used. Particularly starting at the 1:00 mark the song becomes highly similar (to my ear) to that of a bird song. I beleive the first line of this part at 1:01 uses a descending major third from Eb to B.

  63. Liam Craddock says:

    The Beatles’ “She’s a Woman” features an ascending minor sixth, and I’ve heard a lot of birdsong-like sounds in Hermeto Pascoal’s Music, but can’t claim to know whether any of his songs quote actual birdsongs

  64. Lara Cwass says:

    I am always looking for correlations between music and nature, (because I believe they are in many ways one entity). I found this post very interesting because it provides very tangible examples of these connections!
    This song is not a jazz tune, but in this clip at 1:50, Duane Allman emulates the sounds of birds chirping with his slide running across the strings of his guitar. This was one of his trademark techniques that many Allman Brothers fans loved!

  65. Justin Moyer says:

    One song that prominently features a major sixth interval is All Blues by Miles Davis. It is first heard as the opening interval in the trumpet melody and appears multiple times throughout. Here is a link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uRBgy43gCoQ

  66. Erica Leiserowitz says:

    It might be an obvious choice, but the first piece of music that came into my mind was “The Cuckoo in the Depth of the Woods” from Carnival of Animals by Camille Saint-Saens.

  67. Matt Blanchet says:

    Hey tom, I noticed that Duke Ellingtons ‘Petite Fleur Africane’ uses repeating major second intervals in the melody similar to the house finches song.

  68. David Lundy says:

    Wow! I never really realized how apparent music is in nature.

  69. Asa Fulton says:

    In Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria from “The Magic Flute”, there’s a prominent downward leap about 40 seconds in, leading from the 5 of the chord to the root after the 5 is repeated eight times. The same thing happens right afterward but in the relative minor. I’m not sure whether Mozart was inspired by bird song for this part, but I can definitely hear how it could be used in that context.

  70. Geoff Bernstein says:

    T.C., that was fantastic — and, very useful to this beginning “birder”. Another personal bird song favorite — Nat King Cole’s version of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square”. Next time we get together I will tell you my story about the hoopoe (a real type of bird) that lived near my house in Peace Corps.

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