We can learn a lot about music from birds, says composer

Composer and zoomusicologist Hollis Taylor said that she learned a lot about music from the pied butcherbird, showing her that humans are far from being the only ones with musical talent in the natural world.
The pied butcherbird is a songbird in Australia. Composer Hollis Taylor said that she sees them as musical teachers. (Submitted by Hollis Taylor)

When composer and zoomusicologist Hollis Taylor first encountered the pied butcherbird, she described it as an "epiphany."

She was visiting a sheep ranch in Western Australia, when she heard the pied butcherbird's beautiful birdsong. That encounter fueled a life dedicated to the study of their songs. 

"I was really gobsmacked. I really wanted to know what precisely these birds were up to. It seemed like something extraordinary was transpiring," said Taylor. 

Pied butcherbirds can sing for two to six hours, constantly changing their timbre, rhythm and tone. 

"They're like minimalist composers, with little motifs that are like, snap together beads that they can pull apart and reorder and change. So it's quite magical to be out in the dark, maybe in the middle of nowhere, hearing their song," said Taylor.

The zoomusicologist is trying to prove something unconventional about the birds — she wants to prove that what they're making is music. 

The nature of music

The question of whether birdsong music is more complicated than you might think. Music is often defined as a human pursuit, created not out of a need to mate or a gutteral urge, but out of creativity. 

Birdsong, by contrast, is assumed to be thoughtless. Some argue that birds sing not because they like singing, but because biology forces them to sing. 

"Music is what we say it is. So that's why I get a little bit impatient when people want to look away from the vocal accomplishment of birdsong."

Violinist Hollis Taylor makes “recompositions” with the sounds of birds. She records the birds and turns their songs into sheet music, often simplifying them for human instruments. (Submitted by Hollis Taylor)

Biology and sound

From a biological standpoint, it's rare for a creature to be able to learn how to make sounds, or vocal learning, where the sounds are copied and adapted rather than emerging solely from physiology. 

A landmark 20-year study has found that a new kind of birdsong has gone "viral" in sparrow populations from British Columbia to Quebec. Ken Otter, a biology professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, and Scott Ramsay, an associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, join Piya Chattopadhyay to talk about their discovery — and what it reveals about animal culture.

Only about a half of bird species are capable of it. Humans are the only primate that can do it. But the capacity to learn means new sounds can be incorporated into songs, which creates a sense of culture, according to Taylor. 

There's also the matter of complexity. Birdsong can be detailed, with emotional highs and lows, and last for hours.

"Plenty of human music, for instance, is simple and repetitive, and highly formulaic. And it's not really complex at all, in harmonic realms or whatever. In the 10,000 bird species, it's easy to compare the simplest birdsong to the most complex Beethoven symphony, and say, 'Oh, well, humans are obviously better,'" said Taylor. 

To highlight the musical talents of the pied butcherbird in particular, Taylor, a violinist, has created numerous "re-compositions." She takes recordings of the bird and turns them into sheet music, often simplifying birdsong so they can be played on human instruments. 

In making these compositions, Taylor said she's formed a kind of relationship with the birds. Some days they're musical colleagues, but just as often they're her teachers. 

"One of the things they've taught me is that music needs to be very organically performed, very naturally performed. And if you've got a tightness in your left hip or your right elbow or your jaw, it's going to come through and it doesn't sound right," she said. 

"I discovered that 'Oh, it's really going to sound much [better] if it sounds much more organic a gesture.'"

Written and produced by Arman Aghbali


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