Songbirds turn on and tune up: Bullfinches have the brain power to learn to sing human melodies accurately

June 26, 2013
Songbirds turn on and tune up

(Phys.org) —Bullfinches learn from human teachers to sing melodies accurately, according to a new study by the late Nicolai Jürgen and researchers from the University of Kaiserslautern in Germany. Their analysis of human melody singing in bullfinches gives insights into the songbirds' brain processes. The work is published online in Springer's journal Animal Cognition.

Music performance is considered to be one of the most complex and demanding that the human mind can undertake. Melody singing requires precise timing of several organized actions as well as accurate control of different pitches and durations of consecutive notes.

The songs of free-living bullfinches are soft and contain that are similar to the whistled notes of human melodies. Teaching birds to imitate human melodies was a popular hobby in the 18th and 19th centuries and the bullfinch was the favorite species.

Using historical data recorded for 15 bullfinches, hand-raised by Jürgen Nicolai between 1967-1975, the researchers studied whether the bullfinches memorized and recalled the note sequence of the melodies in smaller subunits, as humans do, (in chunks or 'modules') or in their entirety, as a linear chain, which is much simpler. The researchers also analyzed the accuracy of the bullfinch's choices and how a bird continues to sing after the human partner pauses. They focused on whether the bird chooses the right note sequence at the right time – so-called alternate singing.

When birds sing solo, they do not retrieve the learned as a coherent unit, but as modules, containing much smaller sub-sequences of 4-12 notes. The researchers investigated the that allow the bullfinch to continue singing the correct melody part when its human partner stops. They found evidence that as soon as the human starts whistling again, the birds can match the note sequence they hear to the memorized tune in their brain. They anticipate singing the consecutive part of the learned melody and are able to vocalize it at the right time when the human partner stops whistling.

The authors conclude: "Bullfinches can cope with the complex and demanding cognitive challenges of perceiving a human melody in its rhythmic and melodic complexities and learn to sing it accurately."

Explore further: Warbling wrens don't just tweet, they sing duets

More information: Animal Cognition. DOI 10.1007/s10071-013-0647-6

Related Stories

Warbling wrens don't just tweet, they sing duets

November 3, 2011

(AP) -- They may not be Sonny and Cher, but certain South American birds sing duets, taking turns as the tune goes along. "Calling it a love song is probably too strong a word," says researcher Eric S. Fortune of Johns Hopkins ...

Musicians take note of tune-writing app

May 6, 2013

Need some instant musical notation to remember that little tune you just came up with? A new mobile app created by a researcher from KTH Royal Institute of Technology makes it possible to score any melody instantly and share ...

Recommended for you

Research advances on transplant ward pathogen

August 28, 2015

The fungus Cryptococcus causes meningitis, a brain disease that kills about 1 million people each year—mainly those with impaired immune systems due to AIDS, cancer treatment or an organ transplant. It's difficult to treat ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

VendicarE
not rated yet Jun 26, 2013
I have never seen a bird of any variety sing Gansta Rap.

It is part of a dying American Culture that even nature abhors.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.