Wednesday, July 20, 2022

On the subject of birdsong, music or not? [common glad impulse]

Ian Rose, Every Good Bird Does Fine, Jstor Daily, July 20, 2022.

Is birdsong music? The question has been around since Aristotle.

One hundred years ago, in 1922, the American musician and scholar W. B. Olds contributed to this debate with “Bird-Music,” an essay whose very title itself demonstrates his position. Olds makes the case that not only is birdsong music, but it’s uniquely beautiful and powerful. To him, each species of bird is a star in its own right, and he gives special mention to a few common American birds; the field sparrow’s song is “a perfect accelerando,” while the song of the white-throated sparrow compels him to ask, “Where is there to be heard a finer legato or more definite rhythm?” Above all, Olds seems most inspired by the tiny ruby-crowned kinglet: “It seems scarcely believable that such a cascade of sparkling tones, extremely high in pitch but wonderfully clear, could proceed from so small a throat. The musician who has not heard it has something to live for.”

The format and timing of “Bird-Music” are important to consider. Olds presents his subjects’ songs not in sonograms (the soundwave format often used to visualize birdsong) nor in the often clunky pronunciation found in bird identification guides (“rat-shrrow!”). Instead, he charts them on standard musical scales. He notes that at the time of publication, musical notation like this had only recently begun to be widely taught to students, not just in private music academies but in public schools. His tablature would be familiar, and even playable, by any young piano student today. Every good bird does fine, if you will.

Olds has a contemporary ally in Hollis Taylor, a zoomusicologist and composer. In Is Birdsong Music, from 2017, she lays out the evidence accumulated since “Bird-Music,” from both the scientific and musical canons. Her conclusion is clear: “To withhold the label music from birdsong is outdated and arrogant.”

There's more at the link. [H/t 3QD]

In a couple of weeks Charlie Keil and I will be publishing Playing for Peace: Reclaiming our Human Nature, where we quote from W. H. Hudson, Chapter XIX, “Music and Dancing in Nature,” The Naturalist in La Plata (1895):

Birds are more subject to this universal joyous instinct than mammals, and there are times when some species are constantly overflowing with it; and as they are so much freer than mammals, more buoyant and graceful in action, more loquacious, and have voices so much finer, their gladness shows itself in a greater variety of ways, with more regular and beautiful motions, and with melody. But every species, or group of species, has its own inherited form or style of performance; and, however rude and irregular this may be, as in the case of the pretended stampedes and fights of wild cattle, that is the form in which the feeling will always be expressed. If all men, at some exceedingly remote period in their history, had agreed to express the common glad impulse, which they now express in such an infinite variety of ways or do not express at all, by dancing a minuet, and minuet-dancing had at last come to be instinctive, and taken to spontaneously by children at an early period, just as they take to walking “on their hind legs,” man's case would be like that of the inferior animals.

I was one day watching a flock of plovers, quietly feeding on the ground, when, in a moment, all the birds were seized by a joyous madness, and each one, after making a vigorous peck at his nearest neighbour, began running wildly about, each trying in passing to peck other birds, while seeking by means of quick doublings to escape being pecked in turn. This species always expresses its glad impulse in the same way; but how different in form is this simple game of touch-who-touch-can from the triplet dances of the spur-winged lapwings, with their drumming music, pompous gestures, and military precision of movement! How different also from the aerial performance of another bird of the same family – the Brazilian stilt – in which one is pursued by the others, mounting upwards in a wild, eccentric flight until they are all but lost to view; and back to earth again, and then, skywards once more; the pursued bird when overtaken giving place to another individual, and the pursuing pack making the air ring with their melodious barking cries!

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