The Music of Sound














Starling photo

Muse to the masses? Not exactly. But when birds sing, musical masters listen.
Starling photo courtesy Paul Slichter.













































starling sitting on a musical note





Silver-point portrait of Mozart

A musical joke?
If Western music has a crown prince, it's the prolific and instantly recognizable Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Child prodigy and composer of symphonies, concertos and operas, you could say Mozart combined the talents of Wayne Newton, Joan Baez and David Bowie.

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."

beginning notes of Ein musikalischer Spass
The beginning of "Ein musikalischer Spass" or "A Musical Joke"
by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Doing dual duty
In fact, said Baptista, the music "mimics the starling's natural propensity to intertwine whistled tunes," and that the awkwardness may be due "to their tendency to whistle 'off-key,' which Mozart reproduced in the horn passages... ." The Mozart 'musical joke' story is a good example, Gray wrote us. "For centuries, people thought Mozart just penned a bad joke in music, but never truly understood the complexity of the material's source. Musicians have even tried to 'stage' the work by trying to be comedic in order to figure out how to present it so that the audience didn't think that they didn't know how to play in tune!"

Mozart was not alone in incorporating bird sounds in music. According to Baptista:

In Beethoven's sixth symphony, the song of a yellowhammer is followed by those of a quail, then a cuckoo.

american goldfinch An american goldfinch (Carduelis tristis)
(c) 1994 Peter LaTourrette
A goldfinch inspired Vivaldi's flute concerto "Il gardellino."

Bela Bartok's third piano concerto was inspired by birds in North Carolina, where Bartok was living during the composition.

The cuckoo, BTW, is the most popular bird in Western music, said Baptista, and even appears in a Johann Sebastian Bach fugue -- in counterpoint with a chicken!

The canyon wren in the Ansaborego desert of California sounds so much like Chopin that you could consider it "a student of Chopin," Baptista said.

The rest of the avian orchestra
Beyond that two-part voice box, birds also use their bodies to make sound in other ways. Some even make instruments!

While courting, the palm cockatoo, for example, breaks a branch, carves it into a drumstick, and bangs a hollow log as a signal to females that he's on the prowl. Providentially, he stores the stick to use it again, said Baptista.

The European snipe, on the other hand, dives to force wind through its feathers, which act as reeds.

Williamson's sapsucker in the Sierra Nevada drums on tree trunks in specific rhythms that vary in what Baptista called "local dialects."

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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