The song of the birds


Bird singing has always been an object of interest for poets, writers and musicians.

In 1650 the German scientist and mathematician

Athanasius Kircher

, in the treatise "Musurgia universalis sive ars magna consoni et dissoni" he reports some transcriptions of bird songs, and refers to an automatic organ that reproduces the cry of animals and even the song of birds.

Even in the first half of the 9th century

Leo the Philosopher

he designed and built two automatic musical instruments with artificial trees and chirping birds for the Byzantine emperor Theophilus.

In 1730 a mechanical organ appeared in France consisting of a wooden roller with pin frames (similar to a music box) which governed the operation of a series of pipes placed above. This organ was used to teach domestic birds motifs.

An evolution in the field of mechanical reproduction of birdsong took place in Switzerland by

P. Jaquet-Droz

He used a Flageolet (a sort of fife) with a movable bottom that made possible trills, tremolos, glissati, flown with remarkable perfection.

The Brugier family

, and later

the Rochat family

in switzerland they were famous for producing miniature singing birds with a mechanism contained in a tobacco box.

Obviously this interest in birdsong finds immediate confirmation in the comparison with musical production, thanks to the analogies with trills, glissati, rhythms and more or less temperate intervals.

In reality, birdsong should be considered as a non-articulated language that responds to situations that occur in one's own biotic sphere that make it possible to decode it. These situations concern states of danger, discomfort, aggression, request for food, courtship, etc. and can be compared to those that cause the baby to cry.

The study of birdsong is part of a new science, the

musical bioacoustics

, which studies sound phenomena in relation to the life forms of the animal world.

Peter Szoke

, Hungarian bioacoustic scholar, arguing that music must be understood as any organized sound phenomenon (and think of the definition that Edgard Varése gives of music: organized sound), eliminates any distinction between human and non-human production. This thesis is supported by the fact that in Slavic languages ​​the term Hudba indicates both artistic music and the musical phenomenon in a broad sense.

Sound expressions of an immediately emotional nature are indicated by the term


. Even in articulated spoken language we have elements that are added to the simple production of coded words and depend almost exclusively on emotional factors; these elements are tonation and rhythm. They enrich the meaningful word with nuances that complete its meaning and context.

The difference between musical expression and sound expression is given by the fact that the latter is not regulated by a system like music is.

As it was said,

many poets and musicians have compared the song of birds to the music of men

identifying in the first that element of abstraction of a non-articulated sound emission, and contributing to that erroneous conception that sees the song of birds as an unearthly music expressive of feelings.

"In reality, birds almost never sing for the pleasure of singing, but to communicate signals that have specific behavioral references" (


). From the acoustic point of view, each species emits its own sounds, and this allows us to recognize, for example, a goldfinch from a finch, a sparrow, a quail. This allows direct communication between individuals of the same species; the sounds emitted by a nightingale, although perceived by other species, have meaning only for another nightingale. This avoids interference that could generate confusions harmful to the survival of individuals, even if in some cases different species recognize, interpret and react to sounds coming from other species during dangerous situations. This is the case, for example, of the quail that hides from the cry of a predatory bird such as the hawk. In this case, the voice emission of the hawk is perceived by the quail not as a specific communication element, but as a generic signal of danger. For communication purposes, the members of the same species tune in to a specific frequency range in such a way as to being able to communicate even in environments where other species are present, not only that, but those belonging to the same species are able to communicate in any part of the globe as what matters, in this system of non-articulated communication, is the

tonation factor

, determined by emotional causes and not by formally determined archetypes.

About ten meanings of the various types of singing can be identified. From the alarm call for dangerous situations to that for the defense of the territory. It is possible to understand, for a trained ear, the emotional state of the animal that emits a call. Generally the ascending trends indicate situations of tranquility while the descending ones refer to fear or discomfort (the so-called "

melodiea peak

", described by

Curt Sachs

in 'The sources of music', vocal expressions, that is, of a primitive type and of an immediately emotional character, characterized by a downward trend and the total absence of words).

The fact that the calls of birds are all made up of high frequencies is due to their directional character and to the lesser possibilities of masking. The high-pitched chirping of newborn birds is more easily identified by the mother's binaural hearing system and is clearly outlined against the background of medium-low frequencies of the surrounding sound environment.

The extension of the frequencies used for human communication

ranges from 80 Hz to about 5000 Hz,

while that of birds

it touches much more acute levels, reaching extreme moments of 20,000 Hz. This consequently entails a very high auditory sensitivity that can reach about 30,000 Hz. in this regard, as a comparison, it can be remembered that the human auditory sensitivity range it is estimated between 20 and 16,000 Hz.

It is however demonstrated that the signification in communication between birds is entrusted not to the height with which the message is expressed, but to the rhythm and tonation.

The signals that precede the mating of two blackbirds, for example, are harmonious and soft while those emitted to signal a danger are short, rhythmic and harsh.

The melodic and rhythmic emissions differentiate not only behavior but also social habits. The sparrows, for example, a gregarious species par excellence, emit mainly rhythmic signals, suitable for coordinating mass movements.

From this derives the principle that the species with the most melodically elaborate song are those that lead an isolated existence

and they do not need to express themselves with sound references capable of being perceived at great distances and by multitudes of individuals.

The signals emitted by the

hermit thrush

(species that lives in North America studied by P. Szoke), for example, are among those closest to human melodies, organized as they are according to diatonic and pentatonic systems, since the songs of birds are made up of extremely acute rhythmic-melodic microcells and fast, their study is possible only after having brought them back to speeds and heights more easily perceivable by the human ear. This reconstruction is mostly obtained through the recording of the songs and their subsequent slowing down. In order to listen to all their rhythmic-melodic components it is necessary to slow down the songs up to 30 times. This operation shifts the register towards the grave, while leaving the relationship between the sounds unaltered.

The first element that appears from the analysis of most of the bird songs

is their being made up of glissandi, that is, of oscillating sounds, and not of distinct and separate pitches, the latter peculiarity only of some species such as the

Hermit Thrush

and the


Some species can produce both emissions. The


which sends signals to the female, for example, performs glissandi, but when in alarm it emits short, detached sounds. The "emotional state" therefore determines the emission of sound.

The analysis of poultry song also makes use of the sonogram

, or rather of its graphic representation with the ordinate axis indicating the heights expressed in Hz and that of the abscissas the time. This way of representing the sound event allows an immediate identification of the elements that constitute it, as well as the possibility of comparison with other sound events.

The sonogram of the song of the finch


being made up of a series of glissato, repeated and practically identical elements, it is, to our ear, characterized by a strongly rhythmic trend;

that of Hylocichla mustelina

(e.g. 2)

instead it highlights a first series of sounds held at a well-defined height followed by some identical units of a rhythmic character but totally deferential from that of the finch.

As mentioned above, there are many composers who have drawn inspiration from birdsong for their compositions, and the nightingale became the poetic and musical image to define the singer par excellence.

In the 1500s

Clement Janequin

wrote a "descriptive" chanson entitled "Le chant des oiseaux" in which the four voices imitate the song of various birds.

Other composers who have written, with both comic and descriptive and evocative intentions, referring to birds are:

  • Adriano Banchieri: bestial counterpoint to the mind;
  • Girolamo Frescobaldi; Capriccio above Cucho;
  • Bernardo Pasquini: Toccata with Cucco's joke;
  • François Couperin: in "L'art de toucher le Clavecin" passages dedicated to the nightingale, the canary, the blackcap, the finch, the cuckoo;
  • Antonio Vivaldi: Il Cardellino (concert for flute and strings); and L'Estate from The Four Seasons;
  • Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony N ° 6 "Pastorale, second movement Nightingale, Quail and Cuckoo imitated respectively by flute, oboe and clarinet;
  • Franz Joseph Haydn: Symphony N ° 38 "La Poule";
  • Richard Wagner: motif of the Bird de Bosco in Siegfried;
  • Camille Saint Saëns: The Swan, Roosters and Hens, Aviary, The Cuckoo at the bottom of the Wood, in The Carnival of the Animals;
  • Igor Strawinsky: Le Rossignol; The FirebirdùHeitor Villa-Lobos: Uiraparù;
  • Maurice Ravel: Oiseaux Tristes.
The musical personality of the twentieth century who however studied and used the singing of birds not with comic or simply descriptive purposes, but considering them a means of approaching nature intended as a primal source of sound is

Oliver Messiaen

, French organist and composer who lived between 1908 and 1992. After a period of technical-philosophical studies on interval and rhythmic modes, at the beginning of the 1950s Messiaen turned his attention to the "greatest musicians". Already in past works we find the presence of these materials used as a relaxing oasis in a more strictly speculative context (eg. Choeur des alouettesin the Sortie of the Messe de la Pentecôte). Le Merle noire for Of and flute (1950), Reveil des oiseaux for Pf, and orch (1953), Oiseaux exotiques for Pf and instruments (1956), Catalog d'oiseaux for Piano (1956 - 58) are some titles in which the songs of birds are used. "For me - says Messiaen - the only authentic music has always existed in the noises of nature. The harmonious sound of the wind in the trees, the rhythm of the sea waves, the timbre of raindrops, broken branches, the collision of stones , the various cries of animals are for me the real music ". But Messiaen does not make "naturism", he does not seek descriptive or onomatopoeic effects, but uses melodic and rhythmic elements transforming them into the structural framework of his compositions.

Paolo Perna

Video: The Song of The Birds 1935

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