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I'm singing in the rainforest: Researchers find striking similarities between bird song and human music

Date:
October 16, 2013
Source:
Max Planck Institute for Ornithology
Summary:
The musician wren is aptly-named, because these birds use the same intervals in their songs that are heard as consonant in many human cultures. This is a what composer and musicologist and a biologist found out in their zoomusicological study. Consonant intervals are perceived to fit well together. They sound calm and stable, and are the basis for keys in Western Music. It is because Musician Wrens preferentially produce successive perfect octaves, fifths, and fourths that their songs sound musical to human listeners.

The song of the musician wren shows remarkable parallels to human compositions: song frequency over time (1.), transcription of the notes of the song (2.), opening melody of the second movement of Haydn‘s Symphony #103 (3.), the opening of Bach’s fugue XX in A minor (4.).
Credit: Journal of Interdisciplinary Music Studies, 2013

The Musician Wren (Cyphorhynus arada) is aptly-named, because these birds use the same intervals in their songs that are heard as consonant in many human cultures. This is what composer and musicologist Emily Doolittle and the biologist Henrik Brumm found out in their zoomusicological study. Consonant intervals are perceived to fit well together. They sound calm and stable, and are the basis for keys in Western Music. It is because Musician Wrens preferentially produce successive perfect octaves, fifths, and fourths that their songs sound musical to human listeners.

In fact the researchers found passages in the songs of the Musician Wrens with striking similarity to passages of e.g. the composers Bach and Haydn. "However, this does not mean that the musician wren is singing in a key the way a human musician might. Rather, the bird's preference for consonances leads to occasional conjunctions of pitches which sound to human listeners like they are drawn from the same scale," says Emily Doolittle.

In 2011, Emily Doolittle was composer-in-residence at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, where she collaborated with ornithologist Henrik Brumm in researching song of the musician wren, gathered birdsongs for future musical use, and presented a concert of her birdsong-related works, performed by members of the Bavarian State Opera.

The now published study reveals that the song of the "Uirapuru" (the Portuguese name for the Musician Wren) is often a part of Brazilian music. The composer Heitor Villa-Lobos wrote a symphonic poem in 1917 called "Uirapuru." Other closely related birds did not receive such an honor: although they have pleasant songs, they lack the harmonic intervals of the musician wrens. Doolittle and Brumm tested 91 human listeners by asking them to compare successions of intervals taken from the musician wrens' songs with computer-generated songs in which the contours and durations remained the same but the intervals were slightly altered. The results were clear: human listeners considered the birds' interval choices to be more "musical."

"Our findings explain why this bird species plays such a prominent role in mythology and art. However, it does not mean that birdsong in general is constructed like human music -- there are around 4000 different song bird species and each has its own way of singing. Some are not very musical at all," says Henrik Brumm, research group leader in Seewiesen.

It remains mysterious whether and how musician wrens perceive musical intervals and how they think about structuring their songs, though this would be an excellent subject for further study. The perception of intervals and other aspects of human music by non-human animals are of considerable relevance with regards to the origin of human music.

The song of the musician wren can be heard here: http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Cyphorhinus-arada?view=3


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Emily Doolittle and Henrik Brumm. O Canto do Uirapuru: Consonant intervals and patterns in the song of the musician wren. Journal of Interdisciplinary Music Studies, 15 October 2013 [link]

Cite This Page:

Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. "I'm singing in the rainforest: Researchers find striking similarities between bird song and human music." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 October 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131016100307.htm>.
Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. (2013, October 16). I'm singing in the rainforest: Researchers find striking similarities between bird song and human music. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 20, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131016100307.htm
Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. "I'm singing in the rainforest: Researchers find striking similarities between bird song and human music." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/10/131016100307.htm (accessed October 20, 2014).

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