The Musical Talents of Animals

As the sun rises, birds sing to greet the day. On warm summer nights, crickets call out to each other, creating a lush symphony. Even seemingly silent creatures, such as elephants and whales, display vocal prowess.

Nature and music have always been linked, but never officially in academic studies. Proponents of a new field they call “biomusic” soon hope to change that.

Coming To A School Near You While researchers have studied animal sounds for many years, biomusic is a concept born just in the last couple of decades. “The purpose of biomusic is to examine linkages between music and a variety of sciences,” says Patricia Gray, artistic director of National Musical Arts and one of the founders of the biomusic, “and to use this nexus as a means for developing new linkages and deeper understandings of life.”

As Gray points out, compelling links exist between music and a number of traditional sciences. Anthropologists, for example, have discovered that for thousands of years, the Amahuaca Indians of the Amazon rain forests have relied on nuances in the whistles of the tinamous bird and other avian tunes. One song could point to the location of food; another might warn of the slithering approach of a poisonous snake.

Last month, Gray helped organize a biomusic symposium at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. The symposium, one the meeting’s most popular, included song styling in elephants, a demonstration of whale songs, love calls of insects and birdcall-inspired prehistoric flutes.

Gray and her colleagues now hope to develop educational tools such as books and CD-ROMs to move biomusic into schools. Some universities offer related bioacoustics courses in their animal behavior departments, but Gray hopes to draw younger students to biomusic, too.

People Aren’t The Only Musicmakers

Cynics may argue animal sounds are just sounds, sometimes pretty, but not music, a term that implies creativity and deliberate composition.

So what does it mean that birds were singing the opening bars of Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” long before Beethoven wrote down the notes?

Birds sing for many reasons, from advertising for a mate to warning off intruders.

But studies also suggest communication is not the only reason for bird music. Luis Baptista, chair of the ornithology and mammalogy department at the California Academy of Sciences, has found birds sing when they appear to be content.

“Song birds in a state of [peace and comfort] often sing softly to themselves without addressing those songs to any listener in particular,” Baptista says. “In this sense, music may serve the same function in humans and birds. We usually sing when we feel good and happy.”

Interestingly enough, bachelor birds sing much more than paired males. Many married couples can relate to this — after marriage, some bird couples quit singing altogether.

From Tree to Orchestra Bird songs inspired virtually all of the great classical composers, from Bach to Schubert. The opening bars of Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony,” for instance, are taken directly from the song of the white-breasted wood wren.

Mozart was one of the few who actually gave birds credit. His beloved pet starling was a great muse to him. While composing his “Piano Concerto in G Major,” Mozart noticed his starling singing along and imitating his piano. Mozart liked the imitation better than than original tune, so he changed it. He wrote, in reference to his bird’s addition, “That was beautiful!” When the bird died in 1784, it had a proper funeral with hymns sung at the graveside.

Composers aren’t the only people who have recognized birds as the musical virtuosos of the animal kingdom. Baptista recently discovered bird vocalizations are stored in specific parts of their brains, usually the left hemisphere.

“These are reminiscent of regions in the human brain where speech is stored,” says Baptista. Calling someone a “bird brain” might not be such an insult.

Other Singers Like a scene out of Disney’s Fantasia, scientists are learning that most creatures express themselves in song and music.

Most of us are familiar with the haunting songs of whales. Researchers have learned that such song stylings are structured in distinct phrases presented in an orderly fashion. Many of the phrases appear to rhyme, and are memorized by members of whale groups. New compositions are created every season.

Until recently, elephants were thought of as the big, strong and silent type, with just the occasional snort and loud call. Now, advances in sound technology allow researchers to hear what they’ve been missing. Katy Payne, senior researcher at the Ornithological Laboratory at Cornell University, has recorded elephant sounds, then shifted the frequencies into a range audible to the human ear. As it turns out, elephants are actually “singing” to each other at ultralow frequencies.

Payne, Baptista, and others hope that biomusic will not only teach children and others to respect and appreciate nature, but that will also help save music education in schools by connecting it with science.

As Gray says, “Perhaps biomusic will help us to better hear the big picture.”