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

Oct 16, 2013
I'm singing in the rainforest
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 origin of human music has long been the subject of intense discussion between philosophers, cultural scientists and naturalists. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany and Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, US, have now found striking parallels between our music and the song of a small brown bird living in the Amazon region. The Musician Wren favors consonant over dissonant intervals, something that has rarely been observed in other animal species before. This bird's musicality goes even further: it prefers to sing perfect consonances (octaves, perfect fifths, and perfect fourths) over imperfect consonances leading to some passages which may sound to human listeners as if they are structured around a tonal center.

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 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 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.

Explore further: Sex? It all started 385 million years ago (w/ Video)

More information: Emily Doolittle & Henrik Brumm: O Canto do Uirapuru: Consonant intervals and patterns in the song of the musician wren. Journal of Interdisciplinary Music Studies. Published online October 15th, 2013 (Open Access, pdf available under www.musicstudies.org/)

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Birds on repeat: Do playbacks hurt fowl?

Oct 16, 2013

In the forests of Ecuador, plain-tailed wrens nest in bamboo thickets, singing complex and continuous melodies. Residing nearby are rufous antpittas, small, secretive birds that hop like thrushes and whistle ...

Clamorous city blackbirds

Jan 11, 2013

(Phys.org)—Animals have developed a variety of strategies for dealing with increasing noise pollution in their habitats. It is known, for example, that many urban birds sing at a high pitch to differentiate ...

Warbling wrens don't just tweet, they sing duets

Nov 03, 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 ...

Recommended for you

'Red effect' sparks interest in female monkeys

Oct 17, 2014

Recent studies showed that the color red tends increase our attraction toward others, feelings of jealousy, and even reaction times. Now, new research shows that female monkeys also respond to the color red, ...

Roads negatively affect frogs and toads, study finds

Oct 17, 2014

The development of roads has a significant negative and pervasive effect on frog and toad populations, according to a new study conducted by a team of researchers that included undergraduate students and ...

All in a flap: Seychelles fears foreign bird invader

Oct 17, 2014

It was just a feather: but in the tropical paradise of the Seychelles, the discovery of parakeet plumage has put environmentalists in a flutter, with a foreign invading bird threatening the national parrot.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

beleg
not rated yet Oct 16, 2013
The molecular source (for the musicality of wren and human) is a brain specific substance labeled estrogen.
Responsible for the processing and storage of auditory stimuli.
No estrogen, no musicality. Or no hearing perception at all despite a physiological intact and healthy hearing organ. The origin of musicality for these species begins and ends with brain specific estrogen.