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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.

  • Henry Faulkner

    Stating that songbirds produce music and then saying it is not a language, is really incorrect. I know as a musician, that all music is a language, with deliberate messages that will arouse thought processes in ones who are experiencing it. One example I will site is I remember a piece of music I was listening to and all of a sudden, I began laughing, as though I had been told the best funny story. My experience is proof positive, that anything, weather it be visual or audible, is language. And the same message, can mean different things to different people, and different things to the same people at different times….Henry.

  • benjamin guile

    two comments: 1: on Faulkner’s observation, it all depends on how the category “language” is defined. If it means “anything conveying meaning”, then everything known to the viewer conveys meaning, such as guns, the sun, drum beats, boxes, etc. (stretching the definition way beyond Rothenberg’s goal). I think he was meaning that the variations within the songbirds’ melodies did not appear to be conveying specific identifiable messages dependent on the variations within the songs, unlike the more language-like songs of the chickadee to which he referred.

  • benjamin guile

    second comment: Where were the bird songs, I hoped? It would have been wonderful to hear him comment on the songs and their variations. Anyone who knows of any good websites for this kind of narrative, please let me know? :>)

  • Jenny

    benjamin guile If you look to the right of the screen at the top corner there is another video called Ofer Tchernichovski on Bird Songs. It kind of gets a little deeper into the songs with birds.

  • Ms. Cynthia

    Perhaps one day when we can analyze and compare the genomes of various song birds in the same species we will understand why they need to be so complex.

  • Billy Jo

    this was amazing! :)

  • Cheryl

    disappointed…anything written about music and song should include audio samples.

  • a j mithra

    The appreciation of language depends upon the usage of music in a particular language.. The more musical the language, the more pleasant it is.. A receptionist’s handling of language cannot make her a successful lecturer and a lecturer’s handling of language cannot make the lecturer become a successful receptionist. The proportion of music differs between a receptionist and a lecturer..

    There are two ways of asking your friend not to come to your house.. One is, ” Don’t come to my house” and the other one is, “I’m sorry.. I’m busy right now.. Can we meet later?”.. They both can bring different reactions when handled by different people…

    Try reading the following sentence by stressing different words each time..”I came to your house yesterday”.. They would sound different from being polite to being rude.. The proportion of tonal quality, which means that the proportion of music makes the difference… In short, music plays a vital role in the appreciation of language..Most people feel that, music precedes language..

    But, when it comes to birds, they have music itself as their language..Be it poetry or music, If given a chance, i can prove through audio files that poets and musicians, without their knowledge have taken inspiration from the song patterns of different song birds and reproduced them in their works…

    Hence i always feel that bird songs are not just songs, but it is the language of the survived used for their survival.. If male birds doesn’t know how to sing, they would surely end up staying a bachelor all through their lives.. Without a mate, there would be no reproduction and without reproduction the world would end up in chaos as birds are not just birds but act as major seed sowers, scavengers, pest controllers and above all they act as indicators of our environmental standard….When the bird population decreases, we should know that our environmental pollution has increased.. Hence, bird songs are not just songs, its the language which expresses our survival…

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