Birds in music

The cuckoo's well-known call is used in music by Beethoven, Delius, Handel, Respighi, Rimsky-Korsakov, Saint-Saens, and Vivaldi. Engraving by John Gerrard Keulemans, 1873

Birds have played a role in Western Classical music since at least the 14th century, when composers such as Jean Vaillant quoted birdsong in some of their compositions. Among the birds whose song is most often used in music are the nightingale and the cuckoo.

Composers and musicians have made use of birds in their music in different ways: they can be inspired by birdsong; they can intentionally imitate bird song in a composition; they can incorporate recordings of birds into their works, as Ottorino Respighi first did; or, like the cellist Beatrice Harrison in 1924 and more recently the jazz musician David Rothenberg, they can duet with birds.

Authors including Rothenberg have claimed that birds such as the hermit thrush sing on traditional scales as used in human music, but at least one songbird, the nightingale wren, does not choose notes in this way. However, among birds which habitually borrow phrases or sounds from other species such as the starling, the way they use variations of rhythm, relationships of musical pitch, and combinations of notes can resemble music. The similar motor constraints on human and avian song may have driven these to have similar song structures, including "arch-shaped and descending melodic contours in musical phrases", long notes at the ends of phrases, and typically small differences in pitch between adjacent notes, at least in birds with a strong song structure like the Eurasian treecreeper.[1]

Influence on musicEdit

Musicologists such as Matthew Head and Suzannah Clark believe that birdsong has had a large though admittedly unquantifiable influence on the development of music.[2][3] Birdsong has influenced composers in several ways: they can be inspired by birdsong; they can intentionally imitate bird song in a composition; they can incorporate recordings of birds into their works; or they can duet with birds.

Imitations of birdsongEdit

Bird modelsEdit

In classical music, two especially popular birds are the nightingale and the cuckoo.[4]

The nightingale's song has been used by composers including Handel, who quoted it in the aria "Sweet bird" in L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, in the "Nightingale chorus" in Solomon, and in his Organ Concerto "No. 13", known as "The Cuckoo and the Nightingale". It appears in Rameau's opera Hippolyte, Respighi's The Birds and Beethoven's Third Symphony. Nightingales can also be found in works by Glinka, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Balakirev, Grieg, Granados, Ravel, and Milhaud.[4]

The cuckoo's distinctive call is used by Beethoven (Pastoral Symphony, 2nd movement), Delius (On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring), Handel (The Cuckoo and the Nightingale), Respighi (The Birds), Rimsky-Korsakov (Snow Maidens), Dvořák, Saint-Saens (Carnival of the Animals), Vivaldi (Concerto in A, The Cuckoo), and Gustav Mahler (First Symphony, where the cuckoo sings perfect fourths instead of the usual major third or minor third).[5]

Less commonly imitated are the great tit (Anton Bruckner's Fourth Symphony), the goldfinch (Vivaldi), linnet (Couperin, Haydn and Rachmaninov), robin (Peter Warlock), swallow (Dvorak and Tchaikovsky), wagtail (Benjamin Britten), and magpie (in a Mussorgsky song). Dvorak celebrated many other kinds of bird, including the stock dove, skylark, and house sparrow.[4]

The imitation of bird song was popular in stage performances in the United States, particularly during the era when vaudeville and Chautauqua were popular. Gramophone recordings of whistling performances accompanied by instrumental music were also popular. Prominent performers in America included Charles Crawford Gorst, Charles Kellogg, Joe Belmont, and Edward Avis; those in Britain included Alec Shaw and Percy Edwards.[6][7]

In earlier classical musicEdit

— Prokofiev's duck theme in Peter and the Wolf

Composers have a variety of bird sounds to work with, from actual birdsong and calls to the appearance and movements of birds, whether real, fictional (like the phoenix) or indeed mechanical. They can choose to use these materials literally, imitating their sounds, as when Sergei Prokofiev uses an oboe for the quacking of a duck in Peter and the Wolf; it may represent the birds symbolically; or it may give a general impression, as when Vivaldi paints a picture of birds moving and singing in The Four Seasons.[4]

An early example of a composition that imitates birdsong is the "realistic" cuckoo in Janequin's 16th century Le Chant Des Oiseaux.[4]

In modern classical musicEdit

Among twentieth-century composers, Olivier Messiaen used birdsong extensively. His Catalogue d'oiseaux is a seven-book set of solo piano pieces based on birdsong. His orchestral piece Réveil des Oiseaux is composed almost entirely of birdsong. Many of his other compositions, including Quatuor pour la fin du temps, similarly integrate birdsong.[8] Béla Bartók likewise made extensive use of North American birdsong in his Piano Concerto No. 3.[9] Carl Nielsen used representations of bird calls in Song of the Siskin, a rarely imitated bird, The First Lark, and Springtime on Fyn, though much of the effect of birds on his work appears in his orchestral colours and time-patterns.[4] Jean Sibelius claimed that the crane's call was the "leitmotiv of my life": it is imitated by clarinets in "Scene with Cranes" in his incidental music from Kuolema.[4] Sibelius's Swan of Tuonela has a sad melody on the cor anglais.[4] The music critic Rebecca Franks, listing six of the best pieces inspired by birdsong, praises Ralph Vaughan Williams's 1914 The Lark Ascending, which begins with "A silvery solo violin line flutters and darts, reaching up ever higher above the orchestra's hushed, held chord. There's no other opening quite like it for instant atmosphere".[10] Hanna Tuulikki's Away with the Birds (2013) is composed of traditional Gaelic songs and poems which imitate birdsong; its five movements represent waders, seabirds, wildfowl, corvids, and the cuckoo.[11] Other composers who have made extensive use of birdsong in their music include Emily Doolittle[12] and Hollis Taylor.[13]

The zoomusicologist Hollis Taylor has charted the multiple techniques used by composers when appropriating the song of the Australian pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis):[14]

In compositional design, pied butcherbird vocalisations have been the source in the parameters of melody, harmony, rhythm, gesture, contour, dynamic envelope, formal structure, phrase length (and the balance of sound and silence), scales, repetition, acoustic image, programmatic intent, and poetic or psychic inspiration. Their flute-like phrases have been assigned to piano and bass, clarinet and bassoon, xylophone and violin. They have been embedded in a stuffed toy.[14]

In other musical traditionsEdit

Among jazz musicians, Paul Winter (Flyway) and Jeff Silverbush (Grandma Mickey) made use of sounds like birdsong.[15] The improvisatory saxophonist Charlie Parker, known as "Bird", played fast, flowing melodic lines,[16] with titles such as "Yardbird Suite", "Ornithology", "Bird Gets the Worm", and "Bird of Paradise".[17]

Use of recorded birdsongEdit

The Italian composer Ottorino Respighi, with his The Pines of Rome (1923–1924), may have been the first to compose a piece of music that calls for pre-recorded birdsong. A few years later, Respighi wrote Gli Uccelli ("The Birds"), based on Baroque pieces imitating four different birds, one to each movement of the work after its prelude:[18]

In 1972, the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara wrote the orchestral piece Cantus Arcticus (Opus 61, dubbed Concerto for Birds and Orchestra). It makes extensive use of recorded birdsong and bird calls from the Arctic, such as the trumpeting of migrating swans.[19]

In the 1960s and 1970s, rock bands started to use sound effects including birdsong in their albums. The English band Pink Floyd included bird sound effects in songs from their 1969 albums More and Ummagumma (for example, "Grantchester Meadows"). Similarly, the English singer Kate Bush used bird calls on her 2005 album, Aerial.[20][21]

The French composer François-Bernard Mâche has been credited with the creation of zoomusicology, the study of the music of animals. His 1983 essay "Musique, mythe, nature, ou les Dauphins d'Arion" includes a study of "ornitho-musicology", in which he speaks of "animal musics" and a longing to connect with nature.[22]

Other recent composers for whom recorded birdsong is a major influence include R. Murray Schafer, Michel Gonneville, Rozalie Hirs,[23] and Stephen Preston.[24] The Indian zoo-musicologist A. J. Mithra has composed music using natural bird, animal and frog sounds since 2008.[25]

Birdsong as musicEdit

Nightingales are admired for their unusually rich song.[26]

On 19 May 1924, Beatrice Harrison broadcast a BBC radio programme in which she played the cello in her garden in Oxted, Surrey, alongside singing nightingales, attracted by her cello music.[a][27] This was the BBC's first ever outside broadcast. The duet was celebrated 90 years on by the violinist Janet Welsh in Lincolnshire.[28] The philosopher and jazz musician David Rothenberg similarly played an impromptu duet in March 2000 with a laughingthrush at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh.[29] In the wild, male and female laughingthrushes sing complex duets, so "jamming" with a human clarinet player exploits the bird's natural behaviour.[30] The duet inspired Rothenberg's 2005 book Why Birds Sing.[31] Rothenberg has also recorded a duet with an Australian lyrebird.[29] In Why Birds Sing, Rothenberg claims that birds vocalize traditional scales used in human music. He argues that birds like the hermit thrush sing on the pentatonic scale, while the wood thrush sings on the diatonic scale, as evidence that birdsong not only sounds like music, but is music in a human sense.[32] Rothenberg's ideas were explored in a 2006 BBC documentary with the same title as the book.[33][34] The claim that birds use fixed musical intervals, as on a scale, is however contradicted by a 2012 study led by the ecologist Marcelo Araya-Salas. It showed that of 243 samples of the nightingale wren's song, only 6 matched the intervals used in scales.[b][35]

The pied butcherbird has an elaborate song with musical qualities.[36]

Luis Felipe Baptista and Robin A. Keister argued in a 2005 paper "Why Birdsong is Sometimes Like Music" that the way birds use variations of rhythm, relationships of musical pitch, and combinations of notes can resemble music. They consider the theory that birds sometimes exploit variation in song to avoid monotony. They survey bird families that habitually borrow phrases or sounds from other species; the European starling is a well-studied borrower, and it is possible that the species inspired a Mozart piece.[37]

Adam Tierney and colleagues argued in a 2011 paper that the similar motor constraints on human and avian song drive these to have similar song structures, including "arch-shaped and descending melodic contours in musical phrases", long notes at the ends of phrases, and typically small differences in pitch between adjacent notes. They excluded birds like the European starling which use many buzzing or clicking noises that are inharmonic, working instead with birds with a strong pitch structure like the field sparrow Spizella pusilla (Emberizidae), the Eurasian treecreeper Certhia familiaris (Certhiidae) and the summer tanager, Piranga rubra (Thraupidae).[1]

Hollis Taylor argued in her 2017 book that the vocalizations of the pied butcherbird are music, rebutting musicological objections to this in detail. This was accompanied by birdsong-based "(re)compositions" based on avian transcriptions, paired with field recordings from the Australian outback.[38][39][36]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ In the 1924 sound clip, Harrison is heard playing "Danny Boy" on the cello while the nightingales sing.[27]
  2. ^ The Araya-Salas study did not investigate the song of any other species, nor other aspects of musicality such as those explored by Adam Tierney.[35][1]


  1. ^ a b c Tierney, Adam T.; Russo, Frank A.; Patel, Aniruddh D. (September 2011). "The motor origins of human and avian song structure". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 108 (37): 15510–15515. doi:10.1073/pnas.1103882108. PMC 3174665. PMID 21876156.
  2. ^ Head, Matthew (1997). "Birdsong and the Origins of Music". Journal of the Royal Musical Association. 122 (1): 1–23. doi:10.1093/jrma/122.1.1.
  3. ^ Clark, Suzannah (2001). Music Theory and Natural Order from the Renaissance to the Early Twentieth Century. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-77191-9.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Campbell, Bruce; Lack, Elizabeth (2011). A Dictionary of Birds. A&C Black. pp. 369–372. ISBN 978-1-4081-3840-3.
  5. ^ Sward, Jeffrey. "Cuckoo and Other Bird Sounds Used in Classical Music". Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  6. ^ Boswall, J. (1998). "Answering the calls of nature: human mimicry of avian voice" (PDF). Transactions of Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society. 92: 10–11. Archived from the original (PDF) on 1 December 2017. Retrieved 16 January 2018.
  7. ^ Smith, Jacob (2015). Eco-Sonic Media. University of California Press. p. 62.
  8. ^ Griffiths, Paul A. (1985). Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. pp. Chapter 6, "A Technique for the End of Time", esp. pages 104–106. ISBN 0-8014-1813-5.
  9. ^ Harley, Maria Anna (June 1994). "Birds in Concert: North American Birdsong in Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 3". Tempo. 189 (189): 8–16. JSTOR 945149.
  10. ^ Franks, Rebecca (22 February 2016). "Six of the best: pieces inspired by birdsong". Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  11. ^ Tuulikki, Hanna. "Away with the Birds". Retrieved 24 September 2016.
  12. ^ Wagner, Eric. "The Piccolo and the Pocket Grouse". Orion Magazine. Retrieved 8 November 2016.
  13. ^ "Hollis Taylor and the Pied Butcherbird". ABC Radio National. 4 January 2014. Retrieved 22 June 2017.
  14. ^ a b Taylor, Hollis (21 March 2011). "Composers' Appropriation of Pied Butcherbird Song: Henry Tate's "undersong of Australia" Comes of Age". Journal of Music Research Online. 2: 21.
  15. ^ Jeff Silverbush Archived 12 July 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ Hodgson, Paul (2006). "Learning and the Evolution of Melodic Complexity in Virtuoso Jazz Improvisation" (PDF). Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  17. ^ "Charlie Yardbird Parker: Music". CMG Worldwide. Archived from the original on 16 April 2016. Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  18. ^ a b c d e f Beard, Harry Beard (June 1936). "Ottorino Respighi (obituary)". The Musical Times. 77 (1120). pp. 555–556.
  19. ^ Morrison, Chris. "Cantus Arcticus (Concerto for Birds & Orchestra)". AllMusic. Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  20. ^ Petridis, Alexis. "Kate Bush, Aerial". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  21. ^ Thompson, William Forde (2014). Music in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: An Encyclopedia. Sage. pp. 801–2. ISBN 978-1-4522-8302-9.
  22. ^ Mâche, François-Bernard (1993) [1983]. Music, Myth and Nature, or The Dolphins of Arion (Musique, mythe, nature, ou les Dauphins d'Arion. Routledge. ISBN 978-3-718-65322-5.
  23. ^ "Curvices (2013)". Rozalie Hirs. Retrieved 24 September 2016. Special thanks to Magnus Robb for giving permission for the use of his bird song recordings.
  24. ^ "TRANS – Revista Transcultural de Música – Transcultural Music Review". Retrieved 3 June 2014.
  25. ^ Gupta, Atula (22 February 2012). "Interview: A. J. Mithra, Making Music with Animal Calls « India's Endangered". Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  26. ^ Doggett, Frank (1974). "Romanticism's Singing Bird". SEL: Studies in English Literature 1500–1900. Rice University. XIV (4): 547–561. JSTOR 449753.
  27. ^ a b "Beatrice Harrison, cello and nightingale duet 19 May 1924". British Broadcasting Corporation. 13 May 2014. Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  28. ^ McSherry, David (18 May 2014). "Nightingale & Violin Duet – 90 Years Since 1st Outside Broadcast". University of Lincoln. Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  29. ^ a b Dreifus, Claudia (20 September 2005). "A conversation with David Rothenberg; Ode With a Nightingale, and a Thrush, and a Lyrebird". New York Times. Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  30. ^ Reich, Ronni (15 October 2010). "NJIT professor finds nothing cuckoo in serenading our feathered friends". Star Ledger. Retrieved 19 June 2011.
  31. ^ Rothenberg, David (2005). Why Birds Sing. Allen Lane.
  32. ^ Motion, Andrew (10 December 2005). "In full flight". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  33. ^ "Why Birds Sing". British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC Four). 1 November 2010. Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  34. ^ "Invertebrate Sound and Vibration 13th International Meeting" (PDF). University of Missouri. p. xiii. Retrieved 18 June 2011.
  35. ^ a b Underwood, Emily (15 August 2016). "Birdsong Not Music, After All". Science. Retrieved 24 April 2016.
  36. ^ a b Taylor, Hollis (2011). "Composers' appropriation of pied butcherbird song: Henry Tate's 'undersong of Australia' comes of age". Journal of Music Research Online: 1–28.
  37. ^ Baptista, Luis Felipe; Keister, Robin A. (2005). "Why Birdsong is Sometimes Like Music". Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. 48 (3): 426–443. doi:10.1353/pbm.2005.0066. PMID 16085998.
  38. ^ Reid, Chris (2017). "Is birdsong music? Ask the butcherbird". RealTime Arts.
  39. ^ Taylor, Hollis (2017). "Is Birdsong Music?". Indiana University Press.