Why are birds attracted to music?

Recording Aria of Goldberg Variations with Cardinal

Attached is an excerpt of the Aria to Bach’s Goldberg Variations with a Northern Cardinal singing. There’s also a House Finch and a bit of what sounds like a juvenile White-Throated Sparrow in there too, and Chimney Swifts twittering up high.

Birds are not the only creatures attracted to music. You may have a cat or dog that likes to sit under the piano while you play, or at your feet with your guitar or whatever your instrument. You may have figured out your house plants grow better with classical music in the background. Maybe your tropical fish swim like they’re dancing when there’s music playing.

Birds are the most obviously musical creatures to us. Those that are called songbirds do just that – they sing. But their other vocalizations are often musical to our ears as well. Songbirds don’t hear the same range of tones that we do: they tend to hear higher pitches than we can but they won’t hear lower pitches as well. But it’s hard to imagine our hearing surpassing that of the birds, because they seem to be so acutely aware of every sound.

When I first realized birds were listening to me play, I thought I could relate to them by imagining how they were listening. I remember thinking that if I had been walking by while someone was playing music with the window open on the third floor of an apartment, I would have had to stop and listen. Yet no human being as far as I know ever did. The humans weren’t listening to birds either, though, and until I was made aware of birds I wasn’t listening either. Admittedly something happened to me when I started listening to the birds. I became more aware of all sounds. Noise became noisier to me. And the slightest sounds of wind rustling leaves of trees or the proverbial pin dropping were more noticeable as well.

If everything a songbird utters has a musical tone to it, I’d like to think its orientation to life is like being in a constant opera. Or maybe it’s more like a human tone language in that the meaning depends a lot on the pitch. Either way, I suspect music is a natural state-of-being for a songbird.

Not all music, of course, is going to interest birds in the same way, they have their tastes too. My birds at home are definitely put off by Messiaen, who wrote out the songs of birds and put them into his music. There are two things operating here: first of all, human instruments imitating bird songs don’t sound exactly like birds, and the birds know that. When I imitate one of my birds’ songs by playing it on the piano, I get stone silence. They react more favorably if I sing it or whistle it, much as I can get wild birds to countersing with my incompetent whistles. Also, I have found my birds relate better to baroque or romantic music, anything preceding 20th Century atonal music, I suppose because they like to know what key they’re supposed to be thinking in. Can’t blame them for that. They’ll talk over loud or keyless music but they won’t blend in, harmonize or sing along with it.

So I hope you enjoy the cardinal, he’s singing quite nicely on this recording.

5 thoughts on “Why are birds attracted to music?

  1. That was gorgeous, thanks Redboy, you do light up the world! Thanks for doing this, I started tearing up at the beauty of the parallel worlds in unity.

  2. Fantastic!! I enjoyed your audio with the birds singing in the background. Birds are more connected to us that many think; it’s no wonder they like to sing to instrumental music. (I regret that my years of piano lessons left me with nothing to share with the world that doesn’t make people want to put their hands over their ears. I’ve stuck with the guitar which is more forgiving of lack of practice.)

    It reminds me of an NPR piece about Audubon and bird song collections, where a song is played (on guitar) at the end played to the song of a thrush. Fun stuff and I hope you enjoy, taken from Studio 360 archives last month. You probably could have submitted and won with your classical pieces!

    By the way, I came over from Bob’s over at Texas Tweeties. Cheers, and happy birding.

    http://audio.wnyc.org/studio/studio030113b.mp3

    • Thanks so much for your comment! And to the link you sent: I have to listen tomorrow, I’m about to turn in and I’m too tired even to listen to the bird songs I recorded on the trail today. But you have the perfect opportunity to play music for birds – a guitar is so much more portable than a piano! I wish I could find the time to take up my guitars again. I did a couple years ago when I felt moved to write a song about my visit to Peru but I just couldn’t get past the lack of calluses… Try sitting outside and playing for the birds and let me know what happens! They’re listening, and they love music!!

      • I will so do that! I agree — they are listening. They are probably more plugged into us than we are even aware. Such a great (and easy and cheap and convenient) way to connect with our surroundings.

      • I just listened to the Cornell clip you sent by way of PBS (I should have been aware of this, I get email from Cornell regularly) and it is just wonderful. Thanks so much!

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