What’s up with the “in-keyness”?

I already thought it was interesting the birds were listening to me play and participating, but when I realized they were in key with the music it made me stop and think. Birds seemed to be pretty autonomous, so why were they choosing to sing in key with the music I was playing? Or were they somehow compelled to be in key with it, not by choice? I tried to find out if anyone had noticed this or written about it somewhere but came up empty. There were studies proving that birds had absolute pitch. Oh good, I had been feeling as if the avians and I had something in common besides our love of music. But no studies of birds singing in key with music. I started thinking maybe this was pretty obvious, like your face has a nose in the middle, to a native musician close to nature, but wondered if anyone in the so-called civilized world had ever considered it a phenomenon. So I started writing scientists about it. I got some courteous responses but nobody really wanted to believe that I could tell them the birds were in key with the music. After all, I have no credentials but my ears. I’m not an ornithologist or a musicologist. I’m just an annoyingly curious woman with a discerning ear.

So I decided to lay low and just keep taping the birds as I practiced, soon becoming more interested in their responses than the pitches, taking for granted that they were always in key. What came to pass over time was that listening to the birds was making me more aware of everything I heard. I caught myself listening to the music in my head again, I had a soundtrack, usually going over whatever it was I was learning at the time. But sometimes the music in my head was not in the key it was written. I had transposed it, and it did not feel natural to “play” it in the right key. What was going on here? Why did I feel as if I had to transpose?

Or I’d wake up in the morning with music in my head and become aware of the robin singing outside my window who was in the same key as the music in my head. Were we telecommunicating or were we both getting our sense of pitch from somewhere else?

Then I’d be having a conversation with someone, maybe a complete stranger, just exchanging a few words, and realizing after we spoke that we were in the key of the music in my head. This was getting to be weird!

I paid attention for a while to the music in my head, whatever it was, right before I got off the train, because I knew there were always three crows by the station in the late afternoon on my way home. Wouldn’t you know they were cawing in the key of the music in my head?

Searching for more practical applications of this experiment, I became aware of the music in the locker room at the gym and, listening to the conversations of women around me, realized they were speaking in the key of the background music. Then somewhere along the line I decided to pay attention to the underlying tone of the conversations as people left Orchestra Hall after a Chicago Symphony concert. Sure enough, everyone was speaking in the key of the last chord the orchestra played.

Going back to the birds, I knew they weren’t always singing. They had songs, but they also had calls, albeit their conversations sound more musical to our ears than our own do to ours. But the birds were reacting to music the same way we do. We have to. What is music but a series of vibrations? Our in-keyness and the birds’ as well is a visceral, physical response that we cannot control.

So maybe I have an explanation for the determination of the mourning dove who sat and listened carefully to the aria of the Goldberg, just waiting for his chance to sing along. He knew somewhere in there, the vibrations were coming up and they would be right in his key, give or take a half step in either direction; he was capable of transposing too. I named him Primo Columbo. He had a hen named Prima, and they produced a son, Secondo, who eventually came to sing with his father. Oh but I forgot, mourning doves don’t learn their songs, science tells us they are born with their song ingrained within them. Well, when I find that tape of Primo and Secondo singing together, I’ll put it up here. Even if Secondo already knew the tune, it sure sounded like he was getting a few tips from his dad.

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