Monday, October 21, 2013

Birdsong and the Musician Wren

What are birds? We just don't know.

Birds of a feather sing together

Some of you may know that I like birding. Since I also like music, it may come as no surprise that birdsong is particularly fascinating to me. I'm not the only one; birdsong has intrigued and stimulated people throughout history. For example, in the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale "The Nightingale", a nightingale's song brings the Chinese imperial court to tears and later distracts Death, saving the life of the emperor.

Probably the best-known composer to use birdsong in music was French composer Oliver Messiaen. He wrote many pieces based entirely on birdsong. While I'm not a big fan of these pieces (to be overly simplistic, to me, they don't have direction or progression), I think it shows the fascination some musicians can have with natural sounds, especially something as ordered as birdsong.

While I'm not as knowledgeable as Messiaen about birdsong (and European birds are just different, anyway), I can tell a few birds just from hearing their song. One of my favorite common birds is the chickadee, which has several different interesting songs in its repertoire.

And your bird can sing

Yesterday, the blog The Presurfer featured a bird called the Musician Wren. Here's what it posted about the wren (

The Musician Wren is a species of wren named for its elaborate song. It is native to the Amazon Rainforest in South America, and west and southwestwards into the Amazonian Andes. In Portuguese it is known as Uirapuru. Especially in Brazil, the Musician Wren is the subject of several legends and fables, most relating to its loud and beautiful song. One of these tells that when it starts singing all other birds stop their song to hear it.*
Here's an audio example of the bird's song, which has a very clear tone, with a picture of it:

But how does it work?

What's interesting to me about the Musician Wren's song is that it's beautiful without fitting into our normal common practice tonality, the system that Western culture has used for music for the past  three centuries. Yet, the music fits together as a whole because it is broken into phrases with a hierarchy, meaning some phrases feel more conclusive than others. There are really only three phrases in the example, which I will call (in the order we hear them): B, A, and B'. All three start with a similar melody, but the B phrase sounds like  a consequence phrase, or most conclusive, mostly because of the descending octave at the end. The A phrase, on the other hand, doesn't sound as final, perhaps because it ends on something close to a second-inversion triad. These two phrases alone would be enough for a complete song, but the wren also produces a variation on the B phrase (B'), which starts like the B phrase, but just kind of stops. These three phrases are different enough and mixed around enough (and their melodies complex enough, with unexpected jumps and clips), that I can listen to them for a while and not get bored. But they are similar enough to make this birdsong sound connected.

Now, do I hear these phrases in a hierarchy because of my musical training, or because nature's music really works that way? I think that's very debatable.

What do you think of the Musician Wren's song? Do you have any favorite birdsongs?

Vocab: common practice tonality, phrase, antecedent phrase, consequence phrase, second-inversion triad

* I think this blurb was summarized from another, lower-quality YouTube video of the Musician Wren, which you can find here.

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