Birds provide springboard to song composers


Maneka Gandhi

Maneka Gandhi(Bihar Times) Musical intelligence is defined by the ability to produce or understand  melody and rhythm, the ability to sing on-key, keep tempo and create musical expressions.
Is this unique to humans ( heavy metal rockers and rap artists don’t count !  ) or do animals and birds have it as well ? According to biomusicologists not only are the sounds of animals and birds pleasing, but they are also composed with the same musical language that humans use. There is a field of study called Zoomusicology , which is  the study of  the musical aspects of sound produced and received by animals.
Mozart was so affected by birdsong that he rewrote a passage from the last movement of his Piano Concerto in G Major to match the song of his starling whom he deemed as a musical companion. Mozart’s notebooks record a  passage and the same passage as the starling revised it changing the sharps to flats. "Das war schon"--That was beautiful!,--reads Mozart’s comment. In his next composition, an odd sextet for strings and two horns, known as "A Musical Joke," Mozart included starlinglike bits as intertwined tunes and an abrupt ending.

Starlings have a two-part syrinx, or voice organ and can belt out two songs at the same time. On starling has been recorded mimicking two birds--a grey fantail and a kelp gull--with the two sides of its syrinx.

Beethoven may also have plagiarized a motif from a feathered composer.The opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony which is one of the most recognizable phrases in Western music: "Ba-ba-ba baaahm" come from a white-breasted wood wren..

In another research, British musician David Hindley slowed bird song down and discovered parallels between the woodlark's complex song and Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues. 

One early example of a composition that imitates birdsong is Janequin's "Le Chant Des Oiseaux", written in the 16th century. Other composers who have used birdsong as a compositional springboard include Biber (Sonata Representativa), Wagner (Siegfried) and the jazz musicians Paul Winter (Flyway) and Jeff Silverbush (Grandma Mickey). The twentieth-century French composer Olivier Messiaen composed with birdsong extensively. His Catalogue d'Oiseaux is a seven-book set of solo piano pieces based upon birdsong. His orchestral piece Réveil des Oiseaux is composed almost entirely of birdsong. The Italian composer Ottorino Respighi, with his The Pines of Rome (1923–1924), may have been the first to compose a piece of music that calls for pre-recorded birdsong. The Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara in 1972 wrote an orchestral piece of music called Cantus Arcticus , Concerto for Birds and Orchestra making extensive use of pre-recorded birdsongs from the Arctic regions.  American Forrest Larson composed in 2007 a piece for a wind ensemble entitled Seabird Fantasy, which uses the pre-recorded birdsong of seabirds.. The American jazz musician Eric Dolphy the flautist incorporated bird song into his music . My  favourite is a wonderful CD I bought 15 years ago called Gorillas in the Mix which is music synthesized from bird songs and animal drumbeats.

Java sparrows can not only distinguish between Bach and Schoenberg, the  melodies of Antonio Vivaldi and the modern  atonal strains of Elliott Carter, but  Shigeru Watanabe at Keio University in Tokyo, Japan, found that they could then apply what they had learned about the differences between classical and  modern music. Watanabe’s sparrows also engaged with the music, showing clear preferences for the more harmonious excerpts.

Birds are not just a source of inspiration to musicians but are musicians in themselves as they follow rhythmic patterns and pitches as those found in human compositions.

Wood thrushes can conform to the familiar Western diatonic scale; canyon wrens come close to the more complex chromatic scale, and hermit thrushes sing with the pentatonic scale of traditional Asian music. Some species even compose in sonata form. A song sparrow, for example, belts out one of its themes, equivalent to a sonata's opening exposition, then fiddles with it a bit here and there much the way a nonfeathered composer develops a theme. The sparrow eventually burbles the original theme again, a version of a sonata's final recapitulation. Nightingales organize the elements of their songs into hierarchies and follow rules of how the songs are constructed, similar to the way humans use syntax. In addition, each individual bird invents its own song phrases, which can be used to identify the individual bird. The songs sung by magpies are skillfully embellished with mimicked sequences and phrases, which we call cadenzas in music. Some recorded magpie songs can be described in musical terms—the bird’s voice moves across four octaves, varies its phrasing between staccato and legato, and embellishes the sequence with vibrato, trills, or deep overtones. Moreover, when a song is complete, an individual bird will end the song with its own closing phrase. It sings this signature phrase in much the same way that painters put their names or initials on completed paintings. The hermit thrush, considered one of the lushest of avian vocalists, sings in the so- called pentatonic scale, which is the basis for a lot of rock 'n' roll music today, in which the octaves are divided into five notes. The California marsh wren sings in the chromatic scale as many as 120 themes in a given jam session, with each theme matched by its immediate neighbor in what is known among musicians as the call-response pattern.

Songbirds arrange and rearrange specific sets of notes into phrases and larger themes similar to our melodies. Some also vary rhythm, as well as pitch, in the same ways we do.  Even their voice modulations are similar : a accelerando in the wood warbler's windup, a swelling crescendo from the Heuglin's robin-chat, a fading diminuendo from the Swainson's thrush.

Musical phenomena as the borrowing of melodies, singing in duets or duels, and passing down songs through families from generation to generation also show up in birds . Wood and hermit thrushes, two of the species with especially beautiful songs, appear to have "rules" for the ordering of their songs, including how often one should be repeated.

African shrikes are famous for their musical, repetitive duets, sounding something between a bell and a horn. The two birds are so well synchronized in their duetting; you would think it was one bird singing. Magpie larks sing a duet. One bird utters a loud metallic "tee-hee" that is immediately followed by the other's "pee-o-wee, pee-o-wit". The pair is so co-ordinated that the whole thing sounds like one song. Whooper and Bewick's swans perform a notable love due every day in a mutual greeting ceremony. Both partners join in a resonant duet that rings across the lake. They swim to face each other and with beaks raised and wings uplifted launch into a wild clangor, the female replying to the honking of the male with repeated notes half a tone lower.

 The white-crested laughing thrushes sing a group chorus. Each individual has its own phrase to contribute to the song: the result is like one bird singing. White-browed sparrow weavers sing group choruses too. Remarkably, each bird is an expert sound mixer. It can also produce the whole chorus on its own.

The choruses of wrens are extraordinarily precise and well coordinated. The  males and females contribute different parts. The song consists of a series of four repeated phrases that follow the pattern ABCDABCD. Males sing A and C, while females sing B and D.. Both males and females hit their notes right on cue so that the ABCD phrasing flows along as though only one bird were singing.

Many bird species keep reinventing their song. New syllables and phrases or even whole new songs may be produced in each successive season by nightingales and canaries. The brown thrasher holds the record, with close to 2,000 songs, and never the same one twice  . Birds give the impression of singing in long bursts without catching their breath. But they do this by taking a series of shallow mini-breaths, synchronized with each syllable they sing.

In the 1920s, the British cellist Beatrice Harrison moved to Surrey and began practicing outdoors in spring. Nightingales began to join along with her, and she heard them matching her arpeggios with carefully timed trills. They would burst into song whenever she began to play. In 1924 she convinced Lord Reith, director general of the BBC, that a performance of cello together with wild nightingales would be the perfect subject for the first outdoor radio broadcast in world history. It took two truckloads of equipment and engineers a whole day to set up.  She started to play , the nightingale began to sing. The BBC received fifty thousand letters of appreciation and Beatrice Harrison became one of the most sought-after cellists of her time. The cello-nightingale duet was repeated live each year on the BBC for twelve years! 

 Many critics argue that birds sing only to fulfill biological functions such as alarm calls , territory defense or to attract mates and don’t confirm to the definition of creativity , of music for music’s sake.  Not true. Research by Gisela Kaplan’s on the Australian magpie has found that some of the most beautiful songs come when the bird is alone and self-expression is at its peak.

I am one of the luckiest people on the planet. My house resonates with their music all day long. Why not plant a few trees outside your house and leave food and water for them. You can create your orchestra too.



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