Music isn’t just for the birds

The first day of the Memorial Day weekend was so temperate, I was able to open all the windows. So when the birds and I got around to practicing the prelude to the G Minor English Suite by J.S. Bach, apparently we were audible to creatures with good ears. A dog joined in from across the street, and it was in key with the music. You can hear a little sample right here. The birds had plenty of input too.

Acadian Flycatcher

Defiant in face of the horrible heat of the next two days, I got up early to go birding. On Memorial Day, I went to Montrose Harbor, finally giving in to a birding hot spot on the (sorry) hottest day of the year. It was quite windy as well. While I did not see too many birds. I got a few nice pictures. There were a lot of flycatchers, and the one above turned out to be an Acadian.

Baltimore Oriole

This was the best I could get of a Baltimore Oriole with all the leaf cover.

Cedar Waxwing

Well-shaded, birds sought refuge from the heat in the “Magic Hedge.”

While on the beach, I caught a Northern Rough-Winged Swallow taking a preening break.

Northern Rough-Winged Swallow

And although Montrose Beach often has more exotic shorebird species, Memorial Day brought me only good looks at one Kildeer.


He’s still a pretty bird.


I’ll be back sometime next week, hopefully with more pictures from somewhere I’ve never been (don’t you love the mystery?). And yes, the AP now approves this usage of the word “hopefully.” While I have always inwardly cringed, I like to reassure myself with the knowledge that hardly any of the words still used after 300 years have the same meanings today, and I am just as guilty as anyone of going with the flow…

Zebra Finch Song: Zorro

Zorro the Zebra Finch is the only one of my little guys who got his name by association with another finch, and not by the character of his song. Indeed his song eluded me for a long time, until maybe about a year ago I started to get the gist of it. I’m sure he’s honed it down and it has matured over time, but I also think like acquiring a taste for a new style of music, I was paying more attention to it.

Zorro was a solo finch in that he had no siblings, so for company he started hanging out with his Aunt Zelda. I don’t know if she was really his aunt, but she was probably old enough to be. Zelda was the only female Zebra Finch I ever named outside of Serafina who was the original hen, because after that the females all started to look the same, had no distinguishing vocalizations, and I had no way to keep them straight, so the girls remained anonymous. But Zelda stood apart because of the skin disease or whatever it was that caused all the feathers on her head to finally disappear. Her condition made her kind of a loner and she probably had other symptoms as well that I couldn’t see or diagnose, as I kept expecting her to die. But she was a hearty little soul who outlived my expectations and she showered attention on the little guy I started calling Zorro. He was faithful to her and hung with her as he grew up, defending her in her final days.

Zelda the Zebra Finch

Maybe one consequence of Zorro’s hanging out with Zelda was that it affected his song development. For the longest time his song sounded immature to me, like a little subsong that never grew up, or stuttered. Upon first listening you might think he still sounds that way, but I have been able to detect more of a pattern to it, and there seems to be a little hurried musical phrase that rushes into the chorus which he then repeats over and over. It’s not easy to write out. “Ta ta TA ta, ta-TAH, ta ta TA ta, ta-TAH” is the rhythm I hear. I have absolutely no idea what I could have named this bird if I had to come up with a name based on his song!

What’s interesting to me about this excerpt is that while Zorro is singing along with the Bach in the prelude, he pauses when the key varies from C major, waits and comes back in when it’s in C. He gets impatient though in the fugue and starts singing when it’s not in C, so I don’t think C is the only key he can sing in, but it was the one he had decided upon to convey his mood.

Many more individual Zebra Finch males’ songs will come as I ferret them out of the tapes.

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.

How I started playing music for birds

Recording made 7-5-2011, Bach A Major English Suite excerpts

When I went back to playing piano years ago, I never dreamed I’d be playing music for birds. But the birds were listening. This blog will be about my discoveries from sharing music with birds and all they have taught me. It’s an ongoing project: I’m still learning music and from my association with birds.

It all started when I renting an apartment on the third floor of an old six flat. I had not played for years, and I couldn’t play music for my own enjoyment because my expectations were too high: I had no technique, had forgotten how to read music, and I wanted to sound like a concert pianist. Yet I had talked myself into playing again purely for physical reasons; I was losing strength in my hands to arthritis.

The first frustrating time I sat down to play I could remember only the prelude to Bach’s B-flat major Partita, and it seemed like a place to start. I turned on my Fender Rhodes piano, leftover from almost 8 years on the road playing Top 40, and started to play. The window must have been open, because I recall a Mourning Dove landing on the sill. He started to sing along. I was horrified and shut the window on him. I don’t think he gave up that easily, he was back on the sill on the other side of the closed window.

Fast forward a few weeks, months, I began learning the Partita again, and the music was beginning to call to me. Now that I was starting to play, I wanted to share the music. Music is not meant to be played in a vacuum, it is an expression to be experienced by others. I bought a tape recorder so I could make tapes and send them to friends. But that soon became a lonely, frustrating business, driven by the impossible quest for perfection. I couldn’t balance my joy in being able to make music again with what I perceived to be other people’s expectations of it.

The next step was to find another musician through Classical Music Lovers Exchange; we carried on a whirlwind long-distance affair for nine months that he cancelled, but he left me with the idea that the birds were singing along with the music. I might have been peripherally aware of this, and left with nothing but his pronouncement, I decided to check it out myself; after all, if they were singing along, they must have been listening, so I would play for the birds.

I had no idea who was in the chorus. In the true spirit of adventure, I put things I thought birds might eat out on the window ledge to draw them in. And in they came. House Sparrows, European Starlings, Mourning Doves, Northern Cardinals, House Finches, Blue Jays, even Dark-Eyed Juncos and eventually an American Crow I named Elvis.

Once I got used to the birds, it was like being in heaven to play for them. They became the ultimate audience, because they were drawn to the music, and they participated in it.

Inspired by Vladimir Feltsman’s rendition of The Goldberg Variations which he played in recital in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, filling in for an ailing Rosalyn Tureck, I decided to learn the Goldberg. It was while practicing the opening aria that a Mourning Dove–possibly the same one I had shut the window on a couple years before!–started singing, intent on being able to sing along with the piano. But I knew his song to be in C. The Goldberg was in G, at least most of the time. It was difficult to listen to the bird and play at the same time but I had the sense he was singing in key with the music. I got some microphones and started taping the birds singing along with my piano practice. On playback, it turned out the birds were always in key with the music.

I have been taping my piano practice with bird accompaniment ever since. I have a lot more to say about all this and it will take me many posts as I go through hundreds of tapes, journals, correspondences.

Warning: This is not about my piano playing, it is about the birds singing along with it, so I ask you to please pardon the mistakes and stumblings. The birds also have a tendency to talk or sing a lot more when I’m first figuring out something, I suppose because the newness of it (after hearing the same thing over and over again for weeks) intrigues them. Unfortunately this means I will put listeners through the excruciating first readings and stumblings on my part.

I have inserted excerpts from a recording made this morning. We’re learning Bach’s A major English Suite presently. The birds in the background (and if one lands on a microphone, in the foreground) live with me in my house.  I am no longer equipped to play for wild birds (although I will be going through the old tapes to find some remarkable examples). The indoor crowd consists of Budgies, Zebra Finches, Scaly-Breasted or Spotted Munias commonly known as “Spice Finches”, and a couple of Society Finches. The Budgies are rappers. The Zebra Finch males each have distinctive songs, and they sound a bit  like little nasal tin horns. The song of the Spice Finch is too soft to be heard over all the other birds, but I do have recordings from the first Spice Finch somewhere when there was less competition and I will be posting when I find; the Spice Finches do have musical whistling calls, however. The female Society Finch sounds like a turning ratchet, the male whistles and sings loudly when inspired to do so. I’m still learning the tape-to-MP3 program so this may sound a bit disorganized.

And it’s not all going to be Bach, there’s Mozart (thanks to the birds’ encouragement, I trekked through all the piano sonatas), some Brahms, Ravel, Schumann and probably more.