What is zoomusicology? It is the study of the music of animals. An interesting subject. For instance, listen to the birds singing outside in summer and spring or right now! And you may wonder: Do birds really appreciate music, or do they just treat it like a collection of sounds? Hmmm. There’s been a lot of debate about this over the years. We know that creatures ranging from birds to whales are capable of making haunting, melodious sounds — but whether those count as music has remained controversial.
Neuroscience might hold the answer
Sarah Earp, a researcher at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, has dual specialties in music and neuroscience and has devised an innovative study that examined not the structure or complexity of the melodious sounds made by other species, but instead what response these noises evoked in the brains of those who heard it.
It’s a particularly intriguing idea because, as zoomusicology expert Jean-Jacques Nattiez (born December 30, 1945 in Amiens, France and a professor of musicology) once argued that music has until now been uniquely human because, “sound is not organized and conceptualized (that is, made to form music) merely by its producer, but by the mind that perceives it.” If we can actually analyze the minds of birds that hear their species’ songs and compare them to their human counterparts, we might well be able to say whether or not the birds are really creating music.
So, Sarah Earp looked at the brains of white-tailed sparrows. She examined how both male and female sparrows responded to the males’ songs, both while in and out of the breeding state. The response of both males and females to male birdsong resembled how the human amygdala reacts in response to music — although for males the response resembled when humans hear unpleasant music, while females reacted as our amygdalas would when we hear something beautiful and melodious.
Earp explains her findings: “We found that the same neural reward system is activated in female birds in the breeding state that are listening to male birdsong, and in people listening to music that they like. Scientists since the time of Darwin have wondered whether birdsong and music may serve similar purposes, or have the same evolutionary precursors. But most attempts to compare the two have focused on the qualities of the sound themselves, such as melody and rhythm.
“The neural response to birdsong appears to depend on social context, which can be the case with humans as well. “Both birdsong and music elicit responses not only in brain regions associated directly with reward, but also in interconnected regions that are thought to regulate emotion. That suggests that they both may activate evolutionarily ancient mechanisms that are necessary for reproduction and survival.”
Admittedly, there is one issue with the study — a big part of the human response to music occurs in regions of the brain that birds don’t really share, meaning it’s hard to say definitively whether birds really do respond to their sounds exactly like humans do, which of course is crucial to determining if they are really making music. Earp suggests a followup study with baleen whales — themselves famous for their otherworldly songs — could do the trick… but first we’ll have to come up with some way to perform neural images on whales, which are just slightly harder to study than white-tailed sparrows.
Wait, There is more……
Introducing the pied butcherbirds, virtuosos of the bird world.
These Australian songbirds structure their songs like improvisational jazz riffs, according to a new study.
Hollis Taylor, a musician who listened to the Pied Butcherbird sing and whose trained ear as a violinist and composer stood in a desert in Western Australia listening to them sing and said, “I heard a startlingly arresting birdsong—no, a trio!” Taylor says. “I was in the middle of three Pied Butcherbirds, each singing a different part in a rich, clear voice.”
That experience more than a decade ago proved to be life-changing for Taylor, who has been studying and recording the species, a virtuoso among songbirds, ever since. Pied Butcherbird songs sound like minimalist jazz riffs, she says, in “the adding and subtracting of notes in these magnificent, flute-like songs that slowly unfold and transform.”
Taylor isn’t alone in her adulation. As long as people have recognized melodies, we’ve been enthralled and inspired by the beauty of birdsong. Whether birdsong qualifies as music with aesthetic value, rather than serving only functionally as communication between birds, is hotly debated. Still, Taylor thought the unique complexity of Pied Butcherbird songs was worth a closer look.
So, at Sydney’s Macquarie University, Hollis teamed up with experts from around the world to investigate whether Pied Butcherbird songs might have more in common with music than anyone realized. Taylor collected recordings of 17 birds in the wild and sent the tracks to pianist, Eathan Janney, zoomusicologist who was finishing biology graduate work at the City University of New York, for analysis. When he applied a neurological algorithm that visualizes birdsong like brain activity, he found that Pied Butcherbirds mix repetition and novelty in a very musical way.
Each butcherbird in the study performed a repertoire of musical phrases, and the most skilled crooners sometimes knew more than 30 such pieces. The researchers found that individual birds often included the same themes—what musicians call “motifs”—within those phrases. The motif forms the backbone of the phrase, while variations in pitch and rhythm make each one unique.
Musicians, particularly jazz and blues artists, also use motifs to keep their listeners engaged by returning repeatedly to a familiar melody, even as they modify it slightly through improvisation. Janney thinks the study, which was published last month in Royal Society Open Science, provides compelling evidence of the commonalities of music and birdsong. However, he does admit that it would take more extensive research on the Pied Butcherbird and other species’ songs to really prove that point.
“There is an open argument about bird song: is it like how we experience music or is it something completely different?” Janney says. “This balance [between repetition and novelty] is giving us a clue that these birds may experience their songs like music.”
Additionally, the most skilled birds that knew more songs used motifs more regularly, and even seemed to keep time to a musical rhythm. Taylor speculates that the repeated motifs might prevent the complex songs from confusing their avian audience. “The birds are keeping interest going by having these different phrase types,” she says.
The question of whether birdsong can be called music is one that the study authors continue to ponder, with Taylor publishing a book on the subject next year. She’s currently in the Australian Outback recording the springtime nocturnal songs of Pied Butcherbirds—which for her is part work and part pleasure.
“Since each bird sings differently, and he songs can change annually, each night is always a thrill,” she says. “The musician in me recognizes the musician in them.”a