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Singing With the Birds

by admin on December 1, 2016

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to sing along with a pod of beluga whales? Or play a duet on the clarinet with a laughing thrush? David Rothenberg, a musician who specializes in animal sounds as music, has done all of this and recorded nearly 10 albums involving both human and animal sounds. While many people might think that there is nothing special or humanistic about a birdsong, Rothenberg is quick to disagree. “How to make sense of this animal music? Play along,” he states. Rothenberg has long advocated that interspecies musical communication is an integral part of our relationship with nature.

Beatrice Harrison was one of the first people to ever compose a piece of music that included animals singing along. For a long time, singing with birds was seen as a comical or funny anecdote, but when Harrison was featured on the BBC playing her cello in a garden to a nightingale’s song, everything changed. Audiences were captivated by the beautiful intertwining melodies and incorporation of nature. It was easy to see that animal music may not be so different from our own.

If humans can create music for enjoyment, then why not animals? Vocal learning is a rare trait found in animals that allows them to imitate sounds they hear. Presently, there are only 6 groups of organisms that experience vocal learning; parrots, songbirds, hummingbirds, bats, whales/dolphins, and humans. While this might not seem like a big deal to us, it is actually quite an extraordinary trait that we share with these creatures. This astounding characteristic means that the young animals learn these vital songs from their elders. In Rothenberg’s book, Why Birds Sing, he divulges into the musicality of birdsong and the idea that even though a song is meant to attract mates or defend territory, it does not mean it is not music.

Birds hear almost five times as fast as we do. If bird songs are slowed down to mimic our hearing speed, the result is quite fascinating. The slowed down melodies almost sound like the smooth rhythms of jazz music or a lonely trumpet solo. Birds make music just like we do by putting together patterns of notes with a beginning, middle, and end. There are also radical theories that human communication used to sound more like that of whales and birds. Archeologist Steven Mithen has argued that Neanderthals used to communicate with one another through musical cries of emotion in contrast to the strict verbal syntax that we use today.

Since human music is tied so closely to that of animals, then why not share a duet with a bird, whale, dolphin, or even parrot? Rothenberg did just that when he played a duet with a laughing thrush at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh. This duet opened up many questions as to why a bird would sing along with a clarinet, but Rothenberg stresses that it is important to put those questions aside and simply enjoy the beautiful interspecies music. “I still feel some kind of wonder in the idea, in the possibility that I will make some kind of music I’ve never heard before, that others have never heard before, and that pushes our sense of what music is,” he states. By pushing the boundaries of music, Rothenberg has not only created captivating works of art, but also connected humanity to nature.

By Catherine Allen


Picture source:

Sources not in article:

“Music and Evolution: David Rothenberg on Birdsong.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

Rothenberg, David. “How to Make Music a Whale.” The New York Times. N.p., 5 Oct. 2014. Web.

Anna Lee Skinner December 6, 2016 at 6:22 pm

I’m pretty scared of David Rothenberg, but this article put his viewpoint into perspective for me. Your writing made the topic exciting and your focus on vocal learning was pretty fascinating. Your links were useful and interesting. Great Job!

Christian T Smith December 6, 2016 at 4:36 pm

I think it was interesting to observe the vocal learning ability, and how it only exists in a limited number of birds. I think very often I don’t consider where the songs of bird’s come from or what they can mean and this article really allowed for deeper consideration of these things. I think that the incorporation of vocal learning and its limitedness really helped to emphasize the uniqueness and significance of such animals, and allowed me to better relate myself to them.

Sarah Chao December 6, 2016 at 3:58 pm

Great opening sentence, that invites a thoughtful approach to the article. I like how you described Rothenberg and the important work he does to connect humans to nature. This was very enjoyable to read and learned a lot about the vocal learning in birds. The slowed down melodies of birdsong is fascinating and I couldn’t help looking up more about it!

Kailey Hackett December 6, 2016 at 1:28 am

It was interesting to hear Rothenberg play with the laughing thrush. I listened to the whole clip on youtube and thought it was very different than anything I have heard before. Although I am not a fan of animal music, I thought that this article did a great job explaining it and I was highly intrigued throughout. I found it super interesting that birds hear almost five times as fast as we do and if we slow it down to our hearing speed, it sounds entirely different. That is something really unique that I didn’t know before this and I was really surprised when I read. I still am not a fan of David Rothenberg but his work fascinates me and I think this really highlighted some of his important pieces and experiments.

Lea Gilbert December 4, 2016 at 10:04 pm

It was interesting that you noted that only six groups of animals have the vocal learning ability. It’s interesting to note that parrots, hummingbirds and songbirds all fit into the bird category, and bats, whales and dolphins all use echolocation leaving humans to a singular group of their own. I like that Rothenberg remains positive that animals can sing for fun even though scientists keep telling him they are just mating and instinctual calls. Music is all about hope and connection and Rothenberg finds that well with combining nature and human song.

Emma Berg December 4, 2016 at 12:23 pm

Even though we talked about this in class I think the information and perspective you brought in this article was important. I liked how you used Beatrice Harrison as a historical example to put this type of music into perspective and other examples from history such as Neanderthals. Also, the idea of vocal learning is very interesting and is a great way to connect humans to animals. I didn’t ever think that there was such few types of animals who could do this. This article was really relevant to the course and very well written!

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