bird music-intro

Songs and calls of some New York State birds

Bird Songs in Musical Notation


We call some bird vocalizations "song" and take for granted the analogy between bird song and human music. A glance at the history of species tells us that, in fact, our feathered cousins must have sung their tunes for many hundreds of millenia before the first human spoke or sang. How much of human music had its first roots in imitation of bird song we will never know. But it is probably not a coincidence that some of today's birds sing "music" in the sense that their songs can be quite faithfully transcribed in our standard musical notation of staves and printed notes.

People have been transcribing bird songs at least since the 17th century. Athanasius Kircher (1601?-1680) has a page of Nightingale music in his Musurgia Universalis (Rome, 1650), reprinted by Mathews. The Goldfinch by Vivaldi (1678-1741), The Hen by Rameau (1684-1764) and The Cuckoo and the Nightingale by Handel (1685-1759) are familiar early examples of musical compositions incorporating bird sounds. These attempts had to concern birds whose songs, in tempo and in range, were easily accessible to human perception. Around 1900 the naturalist F. Schuyler Mathews attempted to reproduce the songs of a large variety of Eastern North American birds in musical scores clearly meant to be performed on the piano. Among Mathew's favorites are the Veery and the Hermit Thrush, two birds who use a discrete set of pitch classes, constant during the song in question, and systematically organized into patterns. Furthermore the intervals between the various pitches are often close enough to those on our chromatic scale for their songs to be recognizably approximated on a piano. Nevertheless these birds sing rapid torrents of notes; only with modern recording and analyzing devices is it possible to attempt an accurate transcription.

The following pages have examples of bird songs before and after transcription, so that the natural exemplar can be easily compared with the approximation. In each case I give the song as originally recorded, a sonogram, the musical transcription and a recording of the transcription. Sonograms, half-, quarter and one-eighth-speed records were prepared using Martin Hairer's Amadeus software for Macintosh computers. Amadeus also approximates frequencies with conventional pitches. The musical transcriptions and their renderings were produced with Phil Taylor's BarFly implementation of Chris Walshaw's abc musical notation language.

Tony Phillips
November 15 2003