to the masses? Not exactly. But when birds sing, musical masters listen.
Las Vegas inspired Newton, but what inspired Mozart? Consider the strange funeral held May 27, 1784. As usual, hymns were sung at the graveside. Then Mozart recited a poem he'd penned. Finally, the composer's pet starling was laid to rest.
Starling? Indeed, when it comes to song, they're more sonorous than 'N Sync. That's the word from the late Luis Baptista, an ornithologist of the California Academy of Sciences, who said that like many birds, starlings use two vocal cords to sing two melodies at one time. Not much of an orchestra, but way beyond Elvis Costello...
Baptista spoke at a seminar on the science of music and natural sound at the 2000 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The event was sponsored by National Musical Arts, the resident ensemble of the National Academy of Sciences. Artistic director Patricia Gray describes the group's aim as achieving "a deeper understanding of music through interdisciplinary work in science and the arts."
Baptista, who died suddenly this June, said the starling's singing probably explains why, eight days later, The Moze wrote a divertimento for sextet (K. 522), nicknamed the Musical Joke.
Baptista, who studied the relation of bird song to music, said the piece flummoxed musicologists: One record jacket even mocked it as "awkward, unproportioned and illogical piecing together of uninspired material."
Mozart was not alone in incorporating bird sounds in music. According to Baptista:
rest of the avian orchestra
Birds also get a musical education from their parents. The starling's oral traditions falls along sex lines: females learn from their mothers and males sing along in the shower with dad. This tradition, Baptista added, is often found in human tribes.
Some birds even use the sonata style: They follow an "A" section by a "B" section, then finish by reprising the "A" phrase, the musical equivalent of "run, Ron, run."
Why do human and bird songs vary along themes, rather than endlessly repeat one line, or alternatively, never repeat? Baptista said the best explanation depends on the fact that "humans and birds tune monotony out." But too much novelty -- chaos -- is also distasteful to most ears: "You get mental fatigue from too much variation, so you return and recapitulate. It's variety and unity, and it's found in the sonata -- and in bird song."
What about the sounds of nature as a whole?
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