Bird Song

Baji J. Ram Rao
14:26 +0530 Mon. 26-Jan-2015

A couple of my friends and colleagues -- post-doctoral fellows at HBCSE had an interesting discussion over tea.

The questions were:

  1. What is music?
  2. Do birds make music?

Many people use the expression, “bird song” for the sounds birds make.

Evolutionary scientists think we are merely assigning human meanings to the calls of birds, and that bird calls have nothing to do with real music.
However, decades ago ornithologists noted that the European blackbird (Turdus merula) produced the opening rondo of Beethoven’s “Violin Concert in D, Opus 61”.

Beethoven could have gotten the concept of his music from the forefathers of today’s European blackbird, as these birds pass their songs from generation to generation!

Bird song of some species, like the song sparrow, follow the form of a sonata,

  1. beginning with a strong theme,
  2. then the theme is musically played with,
  3. and for a finish, the original theme is then repeated.

Starlings and Mynahs have diverse and complex vocalizations.
They have been known to embed sounds from their surroundings into their own calls, including imitating each other’s whistles, clicks, rattles, snarls and screeches.

In addition, starlings copy man-made ambient sounds, such as ringing cellphones, car alarms and human speech patterns.
These birds can recognize particular individual starlings by their calls, and are currently the subject of research into the evolution of human language.

In the song cycle Die schöne Müllerin, Schubert set to music a poem in which a starling is given a romantic mission:

“I’d teach a starling how to speak and sing,
Till every word and note with truth should ring,
With all the skill my lips and tongue impart,
With all the warmth and passion of my heart”
(Dyer-Bennett 1967)

European Starling
Common European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

On 27-May-1784, Mozart got himself a starling (Sturnus vulgaris) as a pet for three years. Mozart recorded the purchase of the starling in an expense diary, noting the date, price... well as a musical fragment the bird was whistling.

Mozart’s happy reaction at hearing the starling’s song -- “Das war schön!” (that was beautiful!) -- is all the more understandable
when one compares the beginning of the last movement of his Piano Concerto in G Major, K. 453, which was written about the same time.

Somehow the bird had learned the theme from Mozart’s concerto.

It did however sing G♯ where Mozart had written G♮, giving its rendition a characteristically off-key sound.

das war schoen
beginning of the last movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G Major, K. 453
and imitation by Mozart’s Starling. Notes in red are where the bird tweeted G♯ instead of G♮.

When the starling died on 4-Jun-1787, Mozart held an elaborate funeral for it.
Eight days later he wrote, “A Musical Joke,” which contains the same elaborate structure found in the starling’s song.


Dyer-Bennett, R. (1967). translation: Impatience. In The Lovely Milleress (Die schöne Müllerin). Schirmer.
West, M. J., & King, A. P. (1990). Mozart’s starling. American Scientist, 106-114.