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Do Birds Respect Human Musical Scales?

We spoke to a zoomusicologist who argues that there are more similarities between humans and birds than you'd think.
November 26, 2014, 2:45pm

Anyone who’s lived near a park, or even just a solitary tree, will have heard the local birds piping up around sunrise, belting out their finest individual bangers in what scientists call the dawn chorus. But how choral is the dawn chorus? We say that birds sing, but do they actually sing? Or are they just chirping tuneless nonsense to chest beat for passing love interests or to defend their territory against invaders?


Well, one scientist has argued that the sounds of certain birds actually have remarkably similar characteristics to the same practices you or I would adhere to when picking drunkenly picking up the acoustic guitar at a half empty house party. Her name is Emily Dolittle, a zoomusicologist with a very apt name, who specialises in birdsong. She’s recently written a paper about the sounds a hermit thrush bird makes and found it to closely resemble that of human musical scales. So, I gave her a call to chat about birds singing, the sounds walruses make, and the bird that can imitate any noise.

Noisey: Hey Emily! So, can you tell me a bit more about zoomusicology? What is it?
Emily: Zoomusicology is the study of the musical aspects of sounds made by animals. The term was coined by the French composer and zoomusicologist François-Bernard Mâche in the 1980s, and has been further developed by a number of people, including musicologist and semiotician Dario Martinelli in Finland.

What drew you to studying the noises animals make?
I heard an amazing bird singing outside my window. It was a European blackbird, which I had never heard before, and I was really fascinated by the way short bits of what it sang sounded a lot like human music, but its whole song would never be mistaken for human music. I decided to explore the difference between the ways a blackbird and a human might develop the same musical ideas.

How did you do that?
I transcribed a blackbird song and wrote a piece, which arranges the ideas in the way a blackbird might, and gradually becomes more human like in the arrangement. At the time I thought that I'd just explore the relationship between animal song and human music within that one piece of music. But spending time thinking about it just whetted my appetite to do more. I've written a number of pieces since then which use animal songs but I also became interested in looking at whether sounds made by animals can actually be classified as music.

How did you approach it?
Everyone has their own definition of what music is but it became very clear to me that some animal songs overlap enough with human music that we can use tools of music theory and musicology to better understand the animal songs - and also tools of biology to better understand human music.


So, how different are we to animals in terms of music?
I think our culture is still trying to overcome the influence of Descartes, and the idea that humans are somehow different from animals - so I'm interested in looking at the connections between humans and other species rather than differences. I find animal songs a fascinating source of ideas for writing music. Animal songs are also made by living beings that make choices about what they are singing, but their minds are so different as each species is unique.

Why do birds sing?
That question can be a bit of a minefield! Certainly birds sing to attract mates, to defend territory, or to enhance bonding between mated pairs. Those are the typical scientific answers. It's harder to answer questions about whether they enjoy it, or are being creative.

What other animals make interesting music?
I'm particularly interested in animals that use "vocal learning" - they learn their songs from other members of their species. Lots of birds that do that, they’re called oscine passerines or, colloquially, "songbirds", and there are more than four thousand species of them. Vocal learning is rare in mammals; we're actually the only primates that use vocal learning to any large extent. There are some mammals, like gibbons, that sing beautiful songs, but they are actually innate, not learned.

What animal sounds the most unusual to you?
I'd have to say bearded seals and walruses. The walrus makes a metallic clang that doesn't sound like it's made by an animal at all; it sounds more like banging on a metal bowl full of water. Whereas the bearded seal sounds like an alien!

How do animals react to human music?
Again, it depends on the species. Grey seals love it. If you sing or play by the shore, they will come out of the water and listen! Some birds will come close too, and so do cows! Others will be frightened or run away.

Brilliant. Thanks Emily!

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