Songs to Sing: Interpreting Bird Sounds

Beak Beats


Fallon, Robert. “The Record of Realism in Messiaen’s Bird Style.” OLIVIER MESSIAEN: Music, Art and Literature.  Ashgate, 2007. Web.

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.

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

“Hermit Thrush.” All About Birds. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Web.

Roosth, Sophia. “Screaming Yeast: Sonocytology, Cytoplasmic Milieus, and Cellular Subjectivities.” Critical Inquiry 35.2 (2009): 332-50. Print.

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

Wagner, Eric. “The Piccolo and the Pocket Grouse.” Orion Magazine. N.p., Jan.-Feb. 2013. Web.

Young, John. “Northern Cardinal Call.” What the Robin Knows. Web.

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

Repeat or Replay

According to Karin Bijsterveld, quoting Doron K. Antrim, “‘the ear tends to follow’ the agreeable ‘regular tonal pulsations’ of music and ‘ to forget’ the irritating and fatiguing ‘regular pulsations’ of noise” (Bijsterveld 156).  The recordings included in my audiography, “Repetitions,” exemplify Bijsterveld’s idea that noise and chaos become musical and rhythmic when repeated in an orderly fashion.  The sounds I included in “Repetitions” are sounds that I hear repeated each day and have taken on the role of rhythmic background music to the dynamic aspects of my life.  I arranged these sounds in the order that I hear them each day.  “Repetitions” begins with the way I begin my day, with my morning shower, cycles through my routine of eating and attending class and running, and then ends back where it began in my dorm room.  Occasionally one sound is misplaced in the sequence, for example I eat at Harris/Millis later in the day or hop on my computer earlier, but usually such small shifts in the rhythm of my life do not change the way I define myself.  However, major shifts in the arrangement of these repetitive sounds alter my perceptions of myself, and often these major changes occur depending on my physical location and my age.

When initially establishing my rhythmic background, by coming to a new place or point in my life, I employ causal listening by “listening to a sound in order to gather information about its cause or source” (Chion 48).  Upon my arrival at UVM, I heard an electronic swish and thump, and I was forced to identify the cause of the sound as the hallway door being opened and closed.  Gradually, as I became more accustomed to the opening and closing noises of the door, I employed a form of semantic listening by listening for, “a code or language to interpret a message” (Chion 50).  Although, in listening to the door, I was not hearing the words that make up language, I was using semantic listening by identifying patterns in the way the door was opened to signify the meaning behind that act.  For example, if the door is opened for more than ten seconds before it shuts, there are probably multiple people entering the hallway, or if the door is opened very gruffly and quickly, it is possible that the person opening the door is in a hurry.  By identifying patterns and behavioral codes in the sounds of the door, I am using semantic listening to identify the motivations behind the person opening the door.  Throughout my college experience so far, I have first listened to all of my recorded sounds causally and then later listened semantically.

By entering the next stage of listening to my various rhythmic sounds, Schafer would claim that these sounds no longer capture my attention as they did when I was first employing causal listening because the sounds become a consistent part of my environment, and “things that can’t be generated or shut off with buttons or switches attract little attention in the modern world” (Schafer 38).  However, due to the consistent repetition of these sounds day after day, I have developed a relationship with the noises because they define me at this point in my life.  I may not listen to each of these sounds with focused attention every time I hear each noise, but because I listened intently to the sounds when I first encountered them I have “tune[d] [my] brain to the patterns of [my] environment” and will  quickly identify a change in any of my included recordings (Horowitz 2).

Like the factory workers Bijsterveld describes whose “cultural meanings of sounds largely explain the lack of [their] enthusiasm for hearing protection,” the way I identify with the sounds of my current situation at UVM explains how I feel about my surroundings and myself (Bijsterveld 163).  When I return home to Oregon this summer, I will need to redefine myself by the rhythmic noises of my everyday life in a new town and a new season.  However, right now in my life the ten tracks presented in “Repetitions” demonstrate my stability here at UVM.  “While unusual noises suggested mechanical faults” to the factory workers, and “familiar sounds were a comfort to both drivers and workers,” I find comfort in the familiar sounds I hear from the time I wake each morning, to the time my head hits the pillow (Bijsterveld 161).


Works Cited 

Bijsterveld, Karin. “Listening to Machines.” The Sound Studies Reader. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 152-167. Print.

Chion, Michael. “The Three Listening Modes.” The Sound Studies Reader. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012. 48-53. Print.

Horowitz, Seth. “The Science and Art of Listening.” New York Times. 9 Nov 2012. Web. .

Schafer, Murray. “Open Ears.” Thinking About Sound.

Silence in Douglass’ Audible Narrative

Both the South and the North can be defined as noisy atmospheres in Antebellum America.  Frederick Douglass details, in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, how the sharp cracks of the whip, shrieks of pain by the slaves to demonstrate their humanity, and strings of profane words of slave-owners define the racket of the South in the mid-1800s.  Douglass indentifies the North as carrying on “noiselessly so” compared with the types of sounds he hears in the South, but to many Southerners “Northern cities were distinctly noisy places filled with the cacophony of the mob and the unpalatable cadence of industrialism” (Smith 152).  The South described by Douglass has its own unique soundscape characterized by the “keynote” sounds that make up the everyday activities of slaves and their masters.  However, it is the silences in the soundscape that transform noises into a narrative soundtrack of the life of a slave.  To demonstrate the importance of silence in defining the narrative of a place, I will explain the use of silence in three potential songs on my imagined soundtrack of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

The opening expression on my Frederick Douglass soundtrack features the repetitive, everyday sounds of slavery as Douglass learns how to behave as a slave.  This track contains the constant, sharp slash of a whip cutting against human flesh overlaid by the allegro, profane shouts of the slave master recurring as eighth notes.  The song is conspicuously missing the lazy drone of maternal love, and instead full of a cacophony of the swish of harvesting tobacco or wheat, the blaring of the driver’s horn, and the occasional gunshot blending into the other sounds.  However, the profane shouts build in intensity and become fortissimo, but are offset by rests.  The masters shout and then there is a sudden absence of sound, as if a response is expected.  The slave-owners, though, do not expect a response because the slaves must “know nothing” and “the means of knowing [must be] withheld”(Douglass 1).  This first stage of silence is characterized by submission because when a slave-owner speaks, a slave “must stand, tremble, and listen” without questioning (Douglass 10).  Silence could not prevent the undeserved punishments that the slaves received, but slave-owners expected submission, and this type of silence characterized Douglass as he learned the dehumanizing meaning of slavery.

Track two is characterized by the deceptive silence of a lie.  It is composed of the “wild songs” of the slaves that revealed “at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness” (Douglass 8).  Because the “penalty of telling the truth, of telling the simple truth, in answer to a series of plain questions” was possibly death, silencing the truth became a wise, conscious decision to ensure survival (Douglass 11).  The lyrical messages of the slaves often contrasted the tonal meaning of the songs because the slaves were forced to express their laments in a pursuit of self-preservation.  In this second title, silence becomes important because the lyrical truth of the slaves’ songs is silenced by fear and the need for self-protection.

The final movement of my soundtrack with the motif of silence becomes less chaotic and more measured.  The sounds become more poignant and intentional as Douglass grows more educated and begins to defend himself.  Amidst the ordered sounds of mallets and irons and the pianissimo tinkling sounds of colliding coins, the sounds occasionally fade out before quietly coming back into earshot.  These intentional, calm, and purposeful silences indicate Douglass’ defiance as he “did not allow [himself] a single word; but was resolved, if [Master Hugh] laid his hand upon me, it should be blow for blow”(Douglass 62).   Intentional silence gives Douglass an aura of calculated intelligence and determination that characterized is path to freedom.

Although our lives, and the lives of people of Antebellum America, are defined by the sounds we hear, silence plays a roll in creating history because it allows narratives to be told.  Silence was key to the survival of the slave and Douglass’ evolving use of silence ultimately led to his freedom.  However, silence also played a key roll in the physical narration of Douglass’ own life because his decision to omit the details surrounding his escape to freedom left a large hole in his narrative.  This hole was left for the reader to fill with his or her imagination, but ultimately remained a silent absence of knowledge.  The affect of this is similar to the fractured style of Emily Bernard in her essay “Teaching the N-Word,” and gives the reader the power to fill the gaps of information with her own knowledge to better connect with the work.  In the end, silence can contain as much meaning as sound and may serve to connect the reader to the text to better drive the narrative.

Works Cited 

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995. Print.

Smith, Mark. “Listening to the Heard Worlds of Antebellum America.” The Auditory Culture Reader. Oxford: Berg, 2003. Print.