In conversation with David Rothenberg

An interview with the author of Why Birds Sing: A journey into the mystery of bird song

name
David Rothenberg

Molly Sheridan: Considering the essay you wrote for our site in 2004 on the ties between nature and music, and now this book, which is a musical and scientific exploration of bird song, let’s start by talking about how you came to marry these topics.

David Rothenberg: I was always interested in both music and the natural world and I wanted to figure out how they connected—I wasn’t sure. In high school I heard about Paul Winter and what he was doing. Here was this saxophonist playing with whales and wolves and that really inspired me.

I didn’t really do much with it at the time, but in more recent years I’ve had the opportunity to play live with birds and I got really interested in how my music could change in interaction with the natural world. Over the years it seemed like more people had fit in sounds of nature into their own musical ideas, just stuck them in there, not really taking them seriously enough to change their music.

MS: How do you mean?

DR: To really make music differently because they’ve surrounded themselves with natural sounds. There are people who have, but it takes more work and more openness to be willing to change your ideas and do something you don’t expect. For many years people have admired bird songs but not taken it that seriously because it doesn’t sound like human music.

MS: I really enjoyed digging into this book because I had just assumed a pragmatic reason for why birds sing, finding mates and such, and never really thought about that they like to sing, that’s it’s a kind of bird entertainment.

DR: Scientists might disagree with my statement and say, “Well, how do you know that?” The most honest scientists will say we just don’t know much about this. The more quick ones will say everything happens for a reason, everything in nature is determined by evolution. That may be true, but we don’t know all those reasons and much of what goes on cannot be so quickly explained. Evolution explains a lot, but it doesn’t explain what any individual animal is doing at any moment.

MS: So what is the ratio here in your book then, as far as what is scientific, what is philosophical, and what is drawn from your impressions from working in musical situations with birds?

DR: I was in the National Aviary in Pittsburgh playing along with this bird, and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I came there early in the morning, as the book begins, and one bird really seemed to respond to me in a very direct way. It wasn’t like anything I had heard. You can hear it on the book’s website. I thought, “What’s going on here? What’s he actually doing?” That’s how I got interested and started reading about it. The more I read, the more I realized that people really hadn’t looked into it in the way that I was interested in, which was not trying to explain immediately what the reason was for this, but why does it sound so musical? Why do birds sound so musical to human ears? Is it because human music came from bird song? That the principles of what makes something musical are somehow universal and beyond human beings? This isn’t really the main stream of research that’s been done on this question. Throughout history there were a smattering of individuals who looked at things in this way, but they weren’t in the mainstream because it’s a line of thinking that doesn’t lead to easy conclusions or certainty.

MS: As you started digging around, what were the striking things that jumped out at you?

DR: I was surprised that the most accurate transcription of a bird song in all of the 19th century was by a poet, not a scientist. John Clare wrote this poem based on the nightingale’s song. He really paid attention to what the bird was doing exactly and worked it into a poem. Why wasn’t science doing this? The reason was there was no way to turn bird song into something rigorous to be analyzed because there was no recording of sound. So someone could just say, “I think it sounds like this.” Someone else could say, “No, I think it sounds like this.” It wasn’t really a good source for objective material. Plus, before Darwin, no one took all the stuff animals were doing all that seriously. In the Descent of Man, Darwin says that birds have a natural aesthetic sense. They just like beautiful things; that’s why they sing interesting songs. By aesthetic sense, I don’t think that means necessarily a kind of intelligence as much as this species of bird likes these kinds of sounds and this one likes this. But the descendants of Darwin were uncomfortable with that idea. They found it very unscientific for scientists to say that animals might have an aesthetic sense.

The more that I listened and looked into this, I tended to agree with him. Birds have a different sense of aesthetics. Starlings, which are all over the place, make a huge variety of interesting sounds that most people don’t think are so nice to listen to. They’re like one up from pigeons as most disliked birds in America. Scientists have raised them in their homes and they make all kinds of sounds. They don’t make sounds that you would expect. They don’t imitate to get attention the same way parrots do, they imitate sounds that they like, like the sound of your refrigerator or a fluorescent light; things we might not notice, starlings really like.

When you start to learn about their song, it’s very intricate and complex and planned out. The reason I think these songs are more like music than like language is that they’re generally not believed to convey much specific information. It’s not like each part is saying one bit of information. In the singing is where the meaning comes; they just have to be sung for their purpose to be realized. It’s much more like music. You can’t explain what exactly is being said in a piece of music. What’s the message? It’s not unscientific, what I’m talking about, it’s not against science. I would say it’s more like an aspect of this natural phenomenon that science has a hard time knowing what to say about because it’s not clearly objective. My basic conclusion in this book is that you need to combine the insights of music, science, and poetry to make sense of this very present phenomenon. You want to appreciate bird song, you’ve got to learn all these things.

MS: Do you find that certain species of birds make better collaborators with humans?

DR: Oh, definitely. There was something special about that laughing thrush. One of the reasons, I later discovered, is that this is a bird that uses sound in more social ways. Both the male and females sing and they’re constantly interacting; it’s not so much of a solo performance. So that’s probably the most direct, interactive experience I’ve had because most birds just do their thing.


Listen to an excerpt of Trio Menura
featuring the Healesville Suberb Lyrebird, Michael Pestel (flute) and David Rothenberg (clarinet)
from Why Birds Sing: The Album, Terra Nova Music


The lyrebird of Australia is a bird with among the most complex songs. It takes them five or six years to learn. This expert on the lyrebird thought that they would probably just run away when we started playing music out there, but they stood their ground. Interaction is not something they’re used to, but once a lyrebird stars his performance, he cannot really stop. He’s driven to finish it; he must keep going. It’s like the show must go on. They will alter it in response to you in some odd ways.

MS: So that implies that there is a beginning and an end to this?

DR: Oh, for the lyrebird song, most definitely. Many bird songs have shape, form, and structure of different kinds, but the lyrebird is unusual in that it’s the most complex and structured bird song. It begins with this territorial call which the bird is presumably singing for the other male birds to pay attention to, and maybe other male birds will respond to that or maybe not, because often they’re just alone doing this. Then he goes on to this kind of composition made up of imitations of other birds.

MS: Is it personal to the bird?

DR: It depends on the two species. One species, every group of them, they all have one piece that they learn, kind of like humpback whales, and they’re all doing the same thing. The other species, they’re more like improvisers with the raw materials that they’ve learned together. They take a little bit of some other bird’s song and work with it, take a phrase and turn it into something.

It’s like they have a culture of song. There’s one population of lyrebirds that since the 1930s has taken one little bit of a flute piece that one of them heard. Not everyone thinks that this is true, but quite a few scientists do believe this, because there was a farmer who kept a lyrebird as a pet for eight years—and they live for 40 or 50 years, no one’s sure—and during that time the guy would play the flute and the lyrebird would listen. The bird only took a tiny phrase that he liked and he put it into his song. He was let go back into the wild and he taught that to a generation of other birds. Fifty years later in that area, this population of superb lyrebirds uses this sound that doesn’t come from any other bird around there. It’s just a special little flute phrase. Some people say, “Ridiculous! That’s not true.” But there’s a website that has endless lyrebird songs where you can listen to this.

So we were talking about how they structure their songs. It begins with a territorial call, and then it goes through this litany of imitations, which is going on to attract the attention of females but they’ll do this even if there are no female birds anywhere nearby. So you can say that bird song is to defend territories and attract mates, and they use the song in those contexts, but that doesn’t explain why some birds have such a complex song that’s way beyond levels of efficiency and necessity. And then, in the end, there’s this prelude to mating section. That’s the end of the song, but it doesn’t mean that they’re going to mate there because usually there are no females anywhere nearby. In fact some of them may live in certain habitats where no female would ever come by, so the whole thing is pointless if you think the reason is just to attract the attention of female birds.

When I was playing the clarinet along with him, as you can hear on the CD or the website, this scientist was observing this who had studied this individual bird for 25 years—lyrebird scientists are dedicated—and he said, “Oh, he’s definitely changing his imitative section in relation to you, he’s leaving out certain imitations he would normally do.”

MS: So this is an exceptional case with this species?

DR: It’s an exceptional species among birds, but there are many exceptions. Of course, you’ll hear in science that extremes don’t make good examples, but they do in nature in the sense that the natural world has evolved all these bizarre forms of behavior.

Around here you have mockingbirds which are among the more interesting composers of bird music. People again think these birds just imitate, but it’s not really true. Mockingbirds have their own kind of style of music they make out of the sounds of other birds, but it’s a mockingbird aesthetic. I have a whole chapter talking about that bird in particular because it’s so interesting to try and examine. It really shows the differences between the scientific and the musical approach. Musically, there’s a lot you can say about one mockingbird’s 45-minute performance. The scientific approach would be to try and catalogue all the different syllables the bird uses and count how many there are. Then they’d say, “Well, after a certain number of minutes, we don’t hear any new syllables.” And they’d draw a graph and show that. But as a musician, you’d look at that and say, “Wait a minute. How are they put together? What’s the structure of this?” The scientific response would generally be that’s not so interesting to look at because it’s unique to just one bird doing one thing. We need to collect a lot more data and compare how much birds do this or that. Musically, the one example is interesting enough. You start to really pay attention to it and realize that it’s very organized. You hear one pattern, one series of imitations mixed together, and then 20 minutes later he’ll do something almost exactly the same but not quite, but with the same shape. How much is he actually aware of how he’s putting these things together? It starts to be very interesting just as a piece of music.

A lot of people get sick of hearing these things, but I have noticed if I play these things for my students, they think it’s some new cool kind of electronic music. They don’t think it’s a musical noise and they often can’t believe it’s a bird. I think that musically we’re more able to appreciate bird sound as music today because there are so many kinds of sound we’re open to, but it still seems to sound alien and out of the future which is kind of fascinating because it’s been around for millions of years.

MS: As a composer/musician, what do you take away from having studied bird song?

DR: Well, I’ve tried to use these sounds in different ways. If you’re there improvising with a bird, it’s an experience that’s hard to compare to anything else. You’re kind of reaching beyond the limits of our species to connect over musical lines. It’s one step beyond meeting someone whose language you can’t speak but you play music with them. With birds, it’s a whole step beyond that, but you definitely get a sense that these are creatures interested in sound and it’s an interesting kind of connection even though you never know if they really like it or feel threatened.

In the sounds themselves, I think there are really interesting ideas of structure and tone and quality that you can learn from musically in different ways. I’ve taken bird sounds and played with them on the computer and turned them into different things but all the while being very impressed by the richness of what’s going on.

More people should do this. Most people, when they hear the idea of music and birds, they think of Olivier Messiaen, because he spent so much time listening to birds and transcribing their songs and working them into his music. But among all the many people he taught, nobody seemed interested in this bird stuff. After he died, his widow put together five huge volumes of all of his writings on all manner of musical things. Two 600-page books are bird song transcriptions. I took them out of the library and it was clear no one had opened them, no one had looked at this incredible source of information, his comments and sense of what he heard in these bird sounds. There aren’t enough people in the world of music paying attention to these possibilities. In many ways, there’s a lot more you can learn in these Messiaen transcriptions than in the music he made out of it, because the music is much more his own thing—you have Messiaen music inspired by birds, but the original things go in many different directions. You realize what a musician with a great ear hears in all these songs is different from what a scientist would transcribe through machines out of the same thing and that we need all these different sides of human intelligence to make sense of the bird sounds around us.

Music and science have different goals. Musicians want to enjoy sound for its own sake and work with it and science wants to find out what’s really going on. Of course, what if what’s really going on is the making of music where animals are doing things that can’t just be explained as having an exact function. I think they do have these functions, but that doesn’t say all that much about it, because life, whether lived by birds or people, is much more than specific purposes and requirements.