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Bull Hill
by David Rothenberg : Editor, Terra Nova



Towards the end of Why Birds Sing I come to the answer to the title question:  Birds sing for the same reasons people do, because they have to, and we must.  Music cannot be stopped.  This doesn’t mean bird song has nothing to do with attracting mates and defending territories, but the function doesn’t explain the beauty of the song.  To delve deeper into the music, science and art must work together to try for the greatest human understanding of nature that is possible.

NightingaleOkay, said some critics, you tell us what should be done in your book, so why not go out and do it?  That is why I came up with the idea of the NightinGala, a gathering of select musicians and scientists deep in the understory of the Finnish forest, just an hour outside Helsinki at the retreat center of the Sibelius Academy, the greatest music school in the North.  It took two years to find a time where the most qualified musicians, composers, scientists, and zoomusicologists could gather together, but we did it, just last month:  www.umweb.org/nightingala.

The song of the nightingale, that most poetically praised of European songbirds, has long been studied by biologists, mostly in Germany, because the birds thrive in captivity and use and learn their music in very defined, specific ways that can teach us much about vocal learning in general.  Artistically, these birds have offered centuries of passionate inspiration because their sound is among the loudest and most complex in the forest, with a force of delivery that cannot be ignored. 

Song of the thrush nightingale, Luscinia luscinia:

I first heard nightingales in the arbors of Helsinki ten years ago, where the springtime nights are hardly dark at all.  I was amazed that this bird, which I thought I knew well from the words of Shakespeare, Keats, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, sounded so different than I expected.  Expecting beautiful, tumbling melodies, I was surprised to hear electro-like tones, repeating rhythms, almost like a DJ scratching records or break beats from an alien world.  When I play nightingale songs for my students, they think it’s the latest techno music from Berlin, certainly not a bird.  Is it possible that this song sounds more musical to us in the 21st century than ever before?

Dietmar Todt and Henrike Hultsch have studied nightingales in Germany for decades, both in the wild and in captivity.  Because of their work and the work of their students, more is known about the singing behavior of these famous birds than of any other species with so complex a song. 

There are three distinct ways nightingale sing and countersing to each other, beginning late at night and ending by dawn in the first weeks of spring.  Most males are “inserters,” meaning that they wait about one second after a neighbor’s song finishes before starting their own.  Songs alternate between one bird and another. Then there are “overlappers,” who start their song about one second after their neighbor begins, as if to cover up or jam the neighbor’s signal.  It may be some kind of threat or a mask of the first song, cutting into his air time.  Then there are “autonomous singers,” who sing and sing according to their own schedule, paying no heed to what any nearby nightingales are doing.

Each nightingale sings a series of phrases one after another in preferred patterns. Todt and Hultsch called these recurring groups of phrases “packages.”  They began to imagine how the bird might be thinking through its phrases:

To explain our results on package formation in nightingales, we postulate two kinds of processes:  1.  A parsing process.  We assume that nightingales possess a gating mechanism that passes only a limited number of successively heard song types, and so generates unit-related segmentation of a long sequence of learning stimuli.  2.  A storing process.  We assume that nightingales possess several submemories, each of which can be supplied with data provided “package-wise” by the gating mechanism.  These submemories process the received information in parallel and in a way which explains (1) the sequential association observed among song types in the package, and (2) the development of novel song types observes as recombinations of acoustic material stemming from song types in the same package.

NightingaleDescribed like this, the bird definitely sounds like a machine!  Is that really how his brain his working while he sings?  A musician might call these packages progressions or the song form.  This would suggest a definite level of musical intelligence in the bird, making it sound less like a computer program and more like a musical being.

The most musical reverence for nightingale song comes not from Europe, but from, surprisingly, Afghanistan. Nightingales have long had a central role in the musical mythology of Afghan culture.  It is the bird of thousand stories, hazâr dastân, singing turn by turn, rad bâ rad, always changing its song. Calling a musician a nightingale is the highest form of praise—the greatest often have the word bolbol added to their names as an ultimate honor.  In less fundamentalist days, when music was not chastised or banned, bird song was considered a form of zikr, or remembrance of God, like a muezzin’s prayer.  The meaning echoes more in the repetition than in the words themselves.  All bird species have their own zikr, all praising Creation, and the bolbol is the master bird who never repeats himself, always coming up with new names for God.  This gives bird song the highest honor in a devotional culture, a loftier purpose than biology has so far allowed.

Despite this reverence, Afghan musicians have not made much specific use of bird song in their melodies or forms.  John Baily, one of Europe’s greatest authorities on the musical culture of Afghanistan, brought a recording of English nightingale song and played it to some Afghan refugee musicians living in Pakistan in 1994.  They were immediately excited. 

Nightingale song and Afghan musicians:

These drummers responded to the taped bird song using the “drum language” of spoken bhols, in which players speak the patterns they later play on the tabla. To these musicians, the nightingale’s phrase was a fully stuctured tabla solo, easy to assimilate and respond to.  But their tradition had not explicitly made use of nightingale rhythms before. 

The end result sounds like a new kind of interspecies music, part nightingale—with the relentless call-and-response not trying to go anywhere or conclude—and the musicians caught in the web of the challenge, trying to play exactly what is heard and to take it to some other, human level.
At the NightinGala we heard scientists report their latest experiments, and composers presented their analysis of the nightingale’s song as if it were music.  My main wish was for these two approaches to human knowledge to recognize that on their own, they are each incomplete, and that neither is more objective or unbiased than the other.  Musicians find form and beauty in the sound, and it is not only their own opinion or human culture that brings that. No less an authority than Charles Darwin appreciated the music that lies out there in nature. In The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote that birds “have strong affections, acute perception, and a taste for the beautiful.” He was convinced that females of many species have an innate aesthetic sense, and prefer certain traits simply because they like them. “That animals utter musical notes is familiar to every one, as we may daily hear in the singing of birds.” Darwin knew there was an elegance to these sounds that no amount of deciphering of the song as language could touch.

Out in the forest as we came out from the sauna at two a.m. and jumped into the lake, we heard the song, unmistakable, echoing across the far end of the still water from deep in the tall pine trees.  Package formation in the brain?  An animal’s call to prayer?  The distant beat from a woodland dance club?  Nightingale song remains some of the oldest music we know, millions of years older than anything human, as a matter of fact.  It’s so old that it still sounds like it comes from the future.  We may never figure it out, but there can be no task more noble than to keep on trying.

Nightingale remix:


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All audio excerpts and images courtesy David Rothenberg.

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