Can birds sing out of tune? Fwd: RE: Mind-Twister:

Subject: Can birds sing out of tune? Fwd: RE: Mind-Twister:
From: Kevin Austin (
Date: Sat Oct 01 2005 - 22:01:27 EDT

For a little off topic fun and commentary.



Forwarded from <eamt>

Date: Sat, 01 Oct 2005 17:56:30 -0400
From: Eldad Tsabary <>
Subject: RE: Mind-Twister: Can birds sing out of tune?

Dear Harold (and all),

As promised I forwarded your question to my friend -
composer/clarinettist Daniel Goode - who is known for his bird-call
research and composition. Daniel spent (and still does) years
recording birds, transcribing their calls into conventional notation
and composing (and performing) long pieces
based on these transcriptions.

Here's his response:

"So here's my answer to the question whether birds can sing out of
tune: I'd turn it around, just for fun, to ask, Can birds sing IN
tune? The question of what birds sing (and why) is of continuing
human and musical interest, and some of the best work is now.

I just read two new books, "The Singing Life of Birds" by Donald
Kroodsma; and "Why Birds Sing" by musician/philosopher David
Rothenberg. The latter, but both really will give the answer to your
student's question, phrased either way. The Kroodsma has important
research, not completely resolved yet about the Hermit Thrush, my

In short birds sing for biological survival and possibly for play or
pleasure. What they sing is both calls (coded messages for e.g.,
danger ahead) and songs (for mate-catching, usually but not always by
the male). Some have said they sing what their female potential mates
like, which varies, of course. But that short-circuits the process.

They sing sounds that give them maximum attention, sometimes geared
to the audio environment and what the resonant frequencies are (just
like some feed-back composers, Stuart Dempster, Pauline Oliveros,
Bobetomagus (a group that just did earsplitting electronic
feedback-of course electronic is not a bird thing).

So tuning, per se is not the point. But they do have precise tuning
and the ability to precisely reproduce this tuning and material even
over a life time, though some species change their song year to year.
To ask can they sing out of tune might be to ask: is what they do
"wrong" because it doesn't precisely match our equal-tempered
pitches, or probably any historical tuning, though it may resemble,
mirror, conform in part to, some tunings someplace on earth, even our
equal tempered

Of course, I don't think birds can be wrong. It is meaningful to ask
what bird tuning are, and to study them. They are naturally as
various as the species are. In my transcriptions I recognized that I
couldn't exactly match what I had on tape from my thrush recordings.
I used some plus and minus signs to show microtonal variations, and
when playing I would try to remember what I heard and match it. Also,
I, for musical and technical reasons have always used half-speed
playbacks for making the score.

I don't make a claim that my scores or performances match up exactly
tuning-wise, but I try. And even if I did match the tuning, I
couldn't play the fastest notes that fast, nor the portamentos or
glissandos the same way, and particularly the attack/decay
transients, nor the timbre.

So it is always a translation into another language to play bird
songs on our instrument. I did have one hypothesis about the Hermit
Thrush found in the northeast U.S. and Canada: the, what we would
call, arpeggios, seem to be related some way to the harmonic
(overtone, partial) series. The prevalence of major triads 4ths and
5ths, 7th and 9th chords may be related to the double-pipe that makes
up the bird's resonant chamber, the syrinx. But the manner of
production is more complex than in our single-pipe larynx.

There is cross-pipe modulation going on, so it's not the relatively
simple overblowing of a single pipe that we have in brass instruments
(and woodwinds). Still the Hermit Thrush's "chords" seem often like
the simple sounding of a fundamental plus a selection from its first
few overtones. (Chords is what I love about them, being a harmonic
progression fan) The "chords" are suggestive of chord changes, and
their repetition is the "natural passacaglia," I call it in my
program notes.

Musicians from the very beginning have always been impressed with the
musical parallels between birds and humans. Rhythm is another very
very fruitful field for parallels. Again, they don't count eighth
notes, but they are as precise about rhythm, with seeming ability to
do very sophisticated variation procedure. And then there's form.
Wow. Forms, repetitive forms, non-repetitive forms, mixed repetitive.
Mimic birds like the Mockingbird and the Brown Thrasher have HUGE
HUGE repertoires.

And we should also feel some kind of awe in the face of music that is
millions of years old in the evolutionary development of the bird
species. They've been practicing!! Much longer than we have! If the
student has a follow-up question, I'll give it a try."

Hope this is worthwhile,



-----Original Message-----
From: [] On Behalf Of
Harold Isaac
Sent: September 29, 2005 10:25 PM
Subject: Mind-Twister: Can birds sing out of tune?

Hi everyone,

  I am currently making my own research on the topic but I was
wondering if anyone would have the answer to that question. Thanks in


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