I suspect if I had not lost and regained my inner soundtrack, I never would have given it much thought. But maybe it’s true to that you don’t know what you have until you lose it. For instance, going back to playing piano alone after so many years was so much more than just starting over again. After I got past being disappointed that I had no technique, I became very aware of the rusty connection between my fingers and my brain. It was as if the neurons were all reconnecting with new wires, where the old ones were frayed and disintegrated, and I was sitting there watching it happen. Then as I learned to play a few things again, I realized that my fingers themselves had memory stored in them. Like a dancer whose body memorizes the movements of a dance, my fingers started to memorize the choreography involved in playing a piece, and I slowly began to rebuild an inner music library.

Then there was my soundtrack. Once I started playing again, it was always there. Sometimes it was annoying when I realized that the song my head kept going back to was whatever I was trying so hard to learn. For years I woke up in the morning with a fragment of a very modern piece I played years ago and I have never been able to find it again. But now I woke up with whatever I had been reading through the day before.

I found I could put my soundtrack to good use and practice while walking from the train to work. Never having enough time to practice, this could have been handy. All I had to do was start playing the music in my head and my fingers would follow; I could feel little pulses in my fingertips as they went over the fingering they had memorized. This connection has always been there. Or it was always there until I stopped playing.

Imagine how delighted I was to read of Daniel Margoliash’s study that found zebra finch males likely rehearsing their songs in their sleep. Here was something else I shared with the birds. They had music running around in their heads day and night too!

I had a little zebra finch whose name was Eduardo. He was a “solo” finch because he had no immediate siblings, and he used to sit in the kitchen window and practice his song. I got to listen in on his attempts at songwriting while I was cooking or washing the dishes. He worked on his song for weeks, maybe months. Although he was within earshot of the other males in the dining room and living room, I always felt as if he was called to pay attention to some other source, perhaps inspired by the view of the backyard garden, or just savoring the solitude of having his own special place in the sun to work on his composition. The outcome of all this was that he came up with a very different song than everyone else. Other males who had siblings had inidvidual songs but they had similarities with each other, which indicated there might been a group dynamic at work as well as their learning from their father.

I hadn’t exactly planned to start talking about zebra finch song in detail yet, but when I locate good renditions of all my zebra finches’ songs I will put them all up here. There has been an amazing variety. And by working in Italian names with their songs, I could recognize each and every one of them.

Something else my brain does on music: if there’s a song that goes with a spoken phrase or the appropriate mood, it will start playing it. Don’t ask me how many times the Rolling Stones popped into my head with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” My brain will use a song as an editorial comment. There have been times when I felt as I was assigned a particularly mindless task at work and quite out of my unconscious came the strains of “M-I-C, K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-E.” I realize this dates me, but those of you who grew up with The Mickey Mouse Club will now hear it playing too.


Recording of Mourning Dove and Mozart C Major

Recording of Elvis the Crow from 2001

I was going to write about Music: The Great Communicator, or The Universal Language, but then it started pouring over into What Is It Anyway? Where does music come from? Why is it something we all understand? And of course if I slip into the birds’ perspective, they’ve been doing it longer than we have. But should “music” be the word for only the man-made variety, or does it encompass everything else living and breathing? I tend to think music is everywhere and it exists in places and in forms we don’t yet recognize. Since we’ve created our own brand, or our own way of making music, of course this is what the word “music” describes for us, but I suspect the basis for our musics preceded us all. The creators of the movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” perhaps acknowledged this when they had the alien spaceship land playing a musical or “universal” greeting.

My very unscientific theory is this: after the Big Bang there was a Big Chord. Whether it was a chorus of vibrations accompanied by Hollywood visuals (something akin to the aurora borealis) or a series of emanations from the vibrations produced by the Bang that descended into a chord structure and made the first music, I have no idea.

The sounds birds make, the “songbirds,” at least or the passerines, were perhaps the first creatures whose vocalizations we recognized as “songs.” Now we know insects and whales sing, and at the same time we are still perplexed because our closest relatives, the apes, don’t. Maybe that has more to do with our definition of what a “song” is. I accept the idea that birds sing, and that they’ve been communicating with their songs and calls far longer than we have been on the planet.

Right about the time I became interested in all this, I discovered a book which was compiled from presentations at the first international workshop produced by the Institute for Biomusicology in Venice, Italy, May of 1997: The Origins of Music I will return to this in later posts, but I guess I have a chicken-or-egg question: what came first, the flute or the drum? I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to make a connection between the discovery by archeologists of a most ancient flute and a desire to imitate the sounds of birds. But you can’t have music without rhythm, and maybe from the simplest act of tapping on a rock with a stick to producing more complex rhythm instruments with different tonalities that convey messages, percussion instruments evolved.

As I sit here listening to my birds carry on with WFMT in the background, I am reminded of the ceiling fan that used to be in this room which I finally removed, because it was getting to be too hard to clean and I could never turn it on with the birds flying around. There was a pull chain that made a musical sound when it struck against one of the glass light fixtures on the fan. My budgies used to enjoy playing it along with the music. I recall their playing was always in key. 

Attached are a couple excerpts from my past of wild birds singing along with the music. Elvis the crow was accompanied by my first two budgies, to whom I was talking briefly, it’s the Bach E major prelude, first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. And the mourning dove has come in at the end of the first movement of a Mozart C Major sonata (I presently forget which one) and sings off and on through the adagio: note how he waits to come in with his song.