Birdsong Breakdown

The hermit thrush favors harmonies like those in human music.

Nov 4, 2014
Tracy Vence

WIKIMEDIA, MATT MACGILLIVRAYLike human music, hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) songs “use pitches that are mathematically related by simple integer ratios and follow the harmonic series,” a team of composers, cognitive biologists, and neuroscientists reported in PNAS this week (November 3). Studying the birds’ musical output, the researchers found that the hermit thrush songs favor harmonies similar to those in human songs.

“Our findings add to a small but growing body of research showing that a preference for small-integer ratio intervals is not unique to humans and are thus particularly relevant to the ongoing nature/nurture debate about whether musical predispositions such as the preference for consonant intervals are biologically or culturally driven,” the University of Vienna’s Tecumseh Fitch and his colleagues wrote in their paper.

Duke University biologist Dale Purves told New Scientist that while the results of this study on C. guttatus are interesting, there are many questions to be addressed. “What does it all mean?” he asked. “That’s unclear.”