The Ancient Song of Reptiles (2)

blackbird © Lodewijk Muns 2018(Consider this is an aside to my previous post.)

It has been acknowledged for centuries that birdsong is rarely in tune with any human musical scale. All the same, musical bird lovers have often been tempted to transcribe their song in musical staff notation, as the only kind of notation available. And sometimes, their appreciation of the musical qualities of birdsong has led them to think that, after all, there is not that much difference between the birds’ choice of pitches and human musical preferences.

Even recently a biologist has found it desirable to test the hypothesis that bird tunes can be written in regular staff notation. The result has come out negative for the species tested (the nightingale wren, which produces distinct sustained pitches).

Kircher Musurgia BirdsKircher’s Nightingale

Birdcalls have been imitated in European music since the 14th century, but the first attempt to transcribe birdsong and bird calls out of a scientific interest seems to have been a famous paragraph in Musurgia universalis (1650), by the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher (Book I, Chapter XIV, § iv). It includes a number of bird calls – of the cuckoo, cock, hen, quail, and a parrot saying “hello” in Greek. On top is a transcription of a nightingale’s song (luscinia).

Kircher notes that God has given this animal such musicality

… that not only its speed in producing phrases surpasses any skill in playing musical instruments, but that also its ingenuity mocks the efforts of all musicians. It uses not only the diatonic, but also the chromatic and enharmonic modes […] in such a wonderful way, that no instrument could realize the chromatic-enharmonic steps with more precision than the nightingale with its throat. (p. 30, my translation.)

In other words, the bird’s extra-scalar pitches are actually a refinement of the regular scales (which he admits eludes his notation).

Kircher’s nightingale transcription has been reproduced innumerable times, but its details and relative adequacy or inadequacy have rarely been discussed. Most remarkable is maybe the attempt to capture the bird’s irregular rhythm. To set a time standard for his notation Kircher used a pendulum. He adjusted its length so as to synchronize one full swing with the human pulse, i.e. about 1 second. Two full swings of the pendulum would produce his tactus or beat.

Taking the quarter note at 60 however produces implausibly sluggish tone repetitions. Listening to a few real life examples online, I have found the longest sustained, repeated notes (inter-onset intervals) to last about 0.7 seconds. If we take this as the tempo cue (♩ = 86), Kircher’s notation sounds like this:

Kircher’s nightingale, in a synthetic rendering on piccolo recorder (sounding an octave higher).

You might wish to compare this with a live recording of a nightingale.

By Guido Gerding, from Wikimedia Commons.

Few in fact seem to have tested Kircher’s notation by ear. One interesting exception is the lawyer and naturalist Daines Barrington, who in 1773 presented the Royal Society with a paper on Experiments and Observations on the Singing of Birds.

I once procured a very capital player on the flute to execute the notes which Kircher hath engraved in his Musurgia, as being used by the nightingale; when, from want of not being able to settle their comparative duration, it was impossible to observe any traces almost of the nightingale’s song. (p. 284)

Understandably, the flutist struggled with the uncountable, irregular groups of 64th notes.

(Barrington, by the way, is remembered by music historians because of his vivid report on the eight year old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.)

Barrington’s contemporary, the music historian Sir John Hawkins, has in his General History of the Science and Practice of Music (1776) copied some of Kircher’s transcriptions. Hawkins rightly notes that Kircher’s transcription “is very elaborate, and [it] must have cost him much pains to get it into any form” (vol. 4, p. 208). The rhythm seems to be accurate, but the pitches less so: “the division of our scale is too gross for the intervals”.

Nevertheless, Hawkins elsewhere maintains that “Part of the natural song of the black-bird consists of true diatonic intervals, and is thus to be expressed in musical notes”. He records a blackbird as singing a short phrase in F major (vol. 1, p. 5):

Nature’s Tunes Are Everywhere

The American singer and vocal pedagogue Simeon Pease Cheney had a broader notion of “natural music”, embracing both the animate and inanimate. Wood Notes Wild: Notations of Bird Music (posthumously published in Boston, 1892) contains transcriptions of a large number of bird songs and calls, but also of such phenomena as water dripping from a faucet and the squeaking of a clothes rack in the wind (“a wild melody in the purest intervals”, in A major).

Kindred spirits are the biologists Charles A. Witchell (The Evolution of Bird-Song, 1896) and F. Schuyler Mathews (Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music, 1904). Schuyler Mathews not only provides musical transcriptions of bird calls and song, but often even piano accompaniments. Witchell pays much attention to avian mimicry, and attributes at least some of the pure intervals in birdsong to their being exposed to human music.

Some bird species may imitate human music, and birds have often been trained to do so. But what these historical curiosities reveal is above all the strength of the human tendency to adjust perception to preconception, to subject what we hear to our preferences and categories. Without this, human music would not even be possible: all tuning systems involve impurities which we learn to ignore.