Ruffling feathers

What can music theory do for the study of bird song?

Jan 7, 2011
Vanessa Schipani
Musician and philosopher linkurl:David Rothenberg's; focus on the aesthetic, rather than the adaptive, value of bird and whale song doesn't sit well with some biologists. But others, like linkurl:Ofer Tcernichovski,; a neuroscientist at the City College of New York and Hunter College, think Rothenberg's on to something.
Common nightingale, Luscinia megarhynchos
Wikimedia Commons/Buteo
"The general idea David is trying to develop is that bird song relates to music, or more generally, it relates to beauty and has aesthetic value," says Tcernichovski. "It's more than just something adaptive." It's not that everyone has the same taste in what sounds beautiful, he says, but it's possible that there are some underlying qualities that tie bird, whale and human song together. Tcernichovski adds that by using music theory to study animal song, it might be possible to get at what that "something" is. Is it possible that birds might sing, not to "defend territory or attract mates, but simply because they like to?" Rothenberg asks in his book, Why Birds Sing. One way to study the aesthetic value of bird and whale songs, he says, is to treat them like pieces of human music akin to Beethoven's 5th symphony, analyzing their rhythm, frequency, tempo and pitch.Though Rothenberg hasn't published any scientific papers yet himself, he's helped Tcernichovski come up with ideas on how to better understand complex bird song using music theory. While many researchers in the past have characterized bird songs by quantifying single attributes, such as the number of notes a bird sings in one sitting or the number of trills per song, Rothenberg, with researchers in Tcernichovski's lab and others from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, investigated the melodic and rhythmic variance of nightingale song, a bird that can sing up to 200 different tunes. The group found that while melody remained the same across individuals, rhythm did not, suggesting that a balance between variety and predictability might play a part in the "aesthetics" of bird song from the perspective of the bird -- in this case a potential mate -- listening to the song. This same balance is a hallmark of human music, the researchers say. They presented their findings as a poster at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego and the Netherlands Society for Behavioral Biology meeting in Soesterberg last November."Evolution is survival of the beautiful," says Rothenberg, who teaches music and philosophy at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. "But not necessarily beautiful in our opinion."In 2000, Rothenberg started playing his clarinet with birds at Pittsburgh's National Aviary, which houses more than 600 birds from different parts of the world. One bird in particular, a white-crested laughing thrush, a species in which mates sing complex duets, started to sing with him while he played his clarinet. He says that he believes he can communicate with birds in this fashion because they both share a similar appreciation for music and beauty. And though this may sound like a pretty farfetched idea, at least one prominent biologist might've shared Rothenberg's view. Darwin himself wrote in The Descent of Man:Why certain bright colors and certain sounds should excite pleasure, when in harmony, cannot, I presume, be explained any more than certain flavors and scents are agreeable; but assuredly the same colors and the same sounds are admired by us and by many of the lower animals.There are "basic principles of beauty," Rothenberg says, and scientists aren't going to decipher these principles by solely studying the adaptive value of animal song.Perhaps the capacity to learn vocally is a necessary precursor to the appreciation of beauty. Birds, humans, and whales all engage in vocal learning, or the need to hear song or speech to actually learn how to recreate it. Animals that do not produce complex songs -- and are therefore less likely to appreciate the aesthetic value of music-like tones -- utter sounds in a more innate fashion. "Vocal patterns are hardwired in [animals like] chickens and frogs because they don't have to hear to be able to vocalize," says Tcernichovski. Some researchers doubt the ability of science to distinguish an appreciation for beauty in non-human animals. "One would have to link it to something material," like hormone levels or brain activity for it to have any scientific relevance, says linkurl:Marc Naguib,; an animal ecologist at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology in Heteren and co-author on the nightingale poster. "Otherwise, it's just imposing a certain belief on a bird." Unfortunately, he adds, it's difficult to monitor blood hormone levels in birds while they are listening to or producing songs because the necessary techonology doesn't yet exist. Still, Rothenberg sticks to his claim that studying animal song from a more artistic angle may be the way to better understand the musical capacity of our evolutionary kin. "Science, music, and poetry are all ways of understanding life," says Rothenberg, in Why Birds Sing. "If science is to comprehend happiness, then it should employ the skills of musicians and poets, who have used different human abilities to find meaning in the natural world."
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