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May 21st, 2009
Music and Evolution
David Rothenberg on Bird Songs

Scientist and musician David Rothernberg takes discussion of bird songs a step further than biological imperative, and recognizes these tunes distinct to each species as music.

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David Rothenberg: When I began to realize when you hear a bird song slow down like this, you really hear why bird song is music, it just doesn’t like music. But it really is musical utterance. Why do I say that? Because it’s a pattern of sounds with a beginning, middle and end with a real shape that is performed. Each species is performing a different song, each species is doing it a different song, one kind of particular sound that it needs to do. The song of a blue jay isn’t going to work for a mockingbird. A song of a cat bird isn’t going to work for a thrasher. They all have these different things. Yet the purpose of the song is pretty much the same: males are singing to attract mates and defend territories. People who read my books sometimes say “Rothenberg doesn’t believe male birds sing to attract mates and defend territories.” That’s not true. It’s not that I don’t believe that. That’s what the song is for but that’s not what the song is. Many bird song scientists stop asking what the song is once they decide what it’s for. But what is it? It’s really music, a series of pattern sounds that must be performed a certain way. It’s not like language, it doesn’t have a complex meaning that’s hidden in the syntax. Like some other sounds birds make do have that, like chickadees have 20 calls, they’ve all been studied and identified. A certain sound means I’m hungry, another sound is a general warning sound, another sound is a specific warning sound only if a hawk flies overhead. These kinds of sounds have very specific meanings. They’re more like language. What is remarkable is that these sounds are instinctual. They are kind of learned from birth. The birds know them. They’re not learned—they have those abilities to make those sounds and understand them from birth. But the songs, which are really these musical utterances, they have to be learned. Most songbirds learn their songs from adult male birds. It’s fascinating that they already have the ability to understand the songs that are like language with real specific meanings but these musical kinds of songs whose complexity cannot be explained by their purpose. These things they have to spend time learning. It seems to me it should be like the reverse. Why should you have the take all this time to learn  something whose purpose is so simple.

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