The Ancient Song of Reptiles

Nederlandsblackbird drinking© Lodewijk Muns 2018

The blackbird in our backyard is an obsessive singer. Starting with an hour long aubade at 5 a.m., he punctuates the day with recitals at irregular intervals.

As much as I enjoy waking up with nature’s music, there is something annoying about his performances. It is his repetition of a small number of stock phrases, and one in particular.

Of his three most frequent phrases, one contains four pitches that almost perfectly fit into the musical “major” scale (two ascending fourths, sol do la re). The second, somewhat less obvious, sounds a bit like the beginning of the Mexican song La cucaracha (sol do mi, usually twice, as in the song).

But it is the third that tends to get a little on my nerves. It contains a rising antecedent (in musical terms), followed by consequent that glides down. It regularly recurs after a number of less typical phrases, and stands out by this downward (“confirming”) conclusion. Most other phrases end with an upward turn, in a vaguely questioning manner. In my imagination it has become associated with the French words tapis ridicule, pronounced with a long American “bunched” r. Ridiculous carpet, exclaimed with a hint of mockery.

Blackbird and neighbourhood noises. Starting with “sol-do-la-re”, followed by “tapis ridicule” (00:08), which is repeated at the end. Variation on “La cucaracha” at 00:28.

As is usual with blackbirds, a cleanly whistled motif is often followed by noisy twittering, that may repeat the rhythm and contour of that motif. Hearing this in the open air, it is amazing how the spatial quality changes: while the pure tones are sharply localized, coming from the nearby tree, this percussive coda seems to be scattered through space in an untraceable manner. Maybe that exactly is its function – to enhance the bird’s presence. My poor telephone recording, of course, does not convey that.

I must confess that part of my annoyance with this motif is caused by my own tendency to associate it with those words, tapis – rrridicule.

Finding words, or quasiwords, to “transcribe” birdsong is common practice among bird watchers. In my birding guide the blackbird’s various alarm calls are transcribed as pock, srrree, chack-ack-ack-ack, and plee-plee-plee-plee-plee. As is well known, some birds owe their popular names to onomatopoeia: cuckoo, peewit, chiffchaff. The step from sound words to actual words is sometimes made as a joke. According to tradition, the great horned owl screams Are you awake? me too; the brown thrasher calls Drop it, drop it, pick it up, pick it up; and the white-eyed vireo Spit and see if I care, spit!

These popular “transcription” practices point toward certain regularities in the way we perceive the sounds of speech, particularly vowels and semivowels. We tend to hear these as higher and lower, on a scale from ee through ay–ah–oh to oo. Despite the fact that we may articulate a vowel on any pitch in our range: the vowel “scale” is not determined by pitch, but by colour, or timbre, controlled by the shape we give to the vocal tract. Thanks to the colour of its vowels and semivowels, the nonsensical expression tapis ridicule matches the bird’s intonation rather closely. Much closer anyway than would be possible with a musical staff notation. Admittedly, nothing justifies the t and p of tapis; I just needed a word with ah-ee.

“Tapis ridicule”, in three different instances.

Birdsong, Speech, and Language

Tapis ridicule (nr. 2 in the recording above), spectrogram

There are different, more scientific and accurate ways to transcribe bird sounds. Ornithologists usually study birdsong through spectrograms, rather than by ear. Even though they create a link between language and birdsong, birdwatchers’ phonological imitations seem to play no role in the research on birdsong and human language, which is a rather lively branch of biology.

I take some of my information from a scholarly volume Birdsong, Speech, and Language (Bolhuis and Everaert, eds., MIT 2013). It combines the efforts of biologists and linguists to explore what birdsong and human language have in common, and in particular, to find shared genetic mechanisms that may explain features of both. If humans and birds inherited these genes from a common ancestor, the remoteness of their lineages would imply that they are widely shared across the animal kingdom. But since most animals do neither sing nor talk, they cannot be universally operative, or not in the same way.

It is pointed out that birdsong, like human language, is largely acquired by learning. Songbirds aren’t genetically programmed to sing the songs they do; they’re equipped to learn them by imitation. And this can only happen at a certain age, as is the case with human infants learning to speak. This ability to acquire vocal behaviours by learning them from others is surprisingly rare in the animal kingdom. It places us with some birds in the oddly selected company of bats, dolphins and whales, seals and sea lions, and elephants. Not that of our nearest relatives, the apes, whose command of vocal signals seems to be innate.

Birdsong, speech, and language: what is obviously missing is music, which is barely mentioned and not indexed in this book. That is surprising, if we consider that the “songs” of songbirds seem to be exactly that, songs, very different from the signals or calls they use for simple messages (such as the blackbird’s chack-ack-ack and plee-plee-plee). The blackbird’s aubade and serenade sound more like a musical recital, or show-off, than straightforward communication. It has a function, no doubt – marking its territory, charming females. But that leaves ample room for aesthetic values, for attention to the quality of the song. The complexity, one might even say artistry of song is a factor in sexual selection. Females prefer accomplished singers. And how many human singers owe their fame primarily to their sexual appeal, communicated through the sound of their voice?

Is Birdsong Music?

The question is birdsong music? is a popular, but somewhat misleading formula, that obscures a more interesting and challenging question, what birdsong and music have in common – in evolutionary origin, behavioural aspects, and formal qualities. (The countless musical imitations of birdsong, from Janequin to Messiaen and beyond, I will leave aside for now.)

In its crude form, the question is easily answered. Do birds make music? Maybe, but if they do, it’s bird music. Not music for us.

If the question tends to generate some heat among lovers of music and birds, it’s probably because it is easily charged with sentimental and ethical values. As if saying birdsong is not music is evidence of a lack of love and respect for music and birds.

The joy I feel when waking up in the middle of a chorus if birds does not make it music. But one is free to define music any way one chooses. There are no fixed borders. Some things are more typically music – a Mozart symphony, a pop song on the radio. But there are all kinds of borderline cases: hour chimes, ringtones, military and hunting signals, vendor’s cries.

These all belong to human activities. And before we broaden the domain of music to include the song of birds (and possibly whales), we should wonder what defines the context in which we speak of music.

That’s not some elusive set of properties of all music, but human musicality, which is biologically determined, complex, and unique in the animal world. Musicality includes, among other things, a refined pitch discrimination, that favours the formation of certain musical scales (such as the pentatonic and major scales). It also includes a biologically exceptional sense of time ordering, which is based on the feeling of a beat or pulse (“entrainment“), and relates to movement and dance as much as to music.

Ordered pitches and beats. Even if compositional practices of the twentieth century have made us accept music without either, it does not alter the fact that we have those biologically exceptional capacities, and that they have shaped the course of music over ages. It does show that at the same time our concept of music is embedded in sociocultural practices, which are open to modification and reinvention.

It’s hard or impossible to sing and dance with the birds (even though a rare bird may dance with us). Birds don’t sing in tuned scales (at least not in any we’ve discovered), their rhythm is so-so, and even most virtuoso songbirds, like the blackbird, produce only brief fragments interrupted by lengthy silences, repeated and varied according to elusive patterns. Our approval or disapproval doesn’t affect them. We’re not able to hear their songs in the same way they do, not even physiologically: some of their flourishes are too fast for us to distinguish. They are profoundly alien to us.

We may tend to think of songbirds as cute, almost cuddly creatures. The charm of their song certainly contributes to that perception. But watching a blackbird jumping around on the grass hunting for worms it is easy to recognize it as the reptile, or more accurately, dinosaur it actually is.

It has been said that blackbirds seem to have an urge for innovation: an often repeated motif may become “hackneyed” and is exchanged for another. I’m just curious when my backyard dinosaur is going to change its tune.