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.  An article 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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17 Responses to A menagerie of intervals

  1. 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?

  2. 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’.

  3. 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.

  4. 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

  5. tgcleary says:

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



  6. 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…

  7. James Doherty says:

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

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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

  11. 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!

  12. 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

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. David Lundy says:

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

  16. 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.

  17. 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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