Playing Music for Birds

In the beginning, when I was still fascinated by the fact that I had found my true co-conspirators in birds, almost anyone I talked to about it, this idea of playing music for birds, told me I should write about my experiences. I was fortunate enough to find a place to publish what I eventually wrote in Ted Rust’s Music For The Love Of It which he published online and also by subscription mailing for several years. The journal was primarily dedicated to the creation of chamber music, and Ted was an avid chamber musician and composer. His instrument was oboe, one of the birds in the orchestra. Although he has stopped publishing, Ted has been good enough to keep his archives alive and the link goes to the issue that carried my first published article.

Somewhere in those endless Google searches for “birds and music” I discovered Beatrice Harrison, a renowned British cellist whose recordings of playing her cello for the nightingales in her garden were broadcast over the BBC, which became known as The Cello and the Nightingales sessions.

I would have loved to have had a conversation with Luis Baptista, the famed ornithologist who had an ear for music and suggested that Mozart’s “Musical Joke” was inspired by his starling. Alas Dr. Baptista died in 2000, just when I was beginning to make my own connections between bird song and the music I was playing. You can listen to an interview with Dr. Baptista on Pulse of the Planet.

David Rothenberg has written the beautiful book, Why Birds Sing, in which he has thoroughly researched the connections between bird song and human music. He was inspired by his experiences of playing his clarinet with birds responding. And if you want to know more about bird song, there is no better introduction than The Singing Life of Birds by Donald Kroodsma, whose writing I first encountered in Living Bird, the quarterly magazine from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He wrote with such eloquence about the song of the Winter Wren I had chills down my spine.

I also had a brief correspondence years ago with John Baily, who studied ethnomusicology in Afghanistan for years. He wrote me the Afghans like to bring their caged birds to live music events for the birds to sing along, and that they believe that the birds are singing the many names of God.

As much as I am dismayed by how very few humans pay attention to birds, I am reminded that until I discovered birds personally, I did not acknowledge their existence either in the real world. But there is a lot of information out there, and now that bird intelligence is finally recognized (I suspect the idea of “birdbrain” was perpetuated by some humans who felt outwitted by birds), studies increasingly suggest we have far more in common with the avians than we thought. It was Fernando Nottebohm’s study of canaries and how they change their songs from year to year that caused scientists to reconsider their ideas about the human brain and cell regeneration.

Birds got me to think a lot more about music and how it all started, and how it is that we can share so well the indescribable experience that only music represents. I hear more music now that I’m listening to birds than I ever heard before, and I thought I was a musician. Birds have also taught me a lot about humans, not just by bird-human interactions, but by observing birds behaving among themselves: I am all too often reminded of our own “animal” instincts. But here I go again, straying off topic. I must go back to exploring the tape library where more hidden gems await transference into mp3 files.