What I’ve learned about music from birds

What I’ve learned about music from birds


norman lebrecht

May 27, 2020

From my essay in the new issue of The Critic:

Overnight, all noise ceased as the world went into lockdown. No planes, no trains, no cars. For three days I listened to nothing but birdsong, marvelling at the variety and the volume. Could it be that the birds were singing louder? Ornithologists, called onto the BBC, said that, on the contrary, the birds were singing softer now they no longer had to compete with cars to get their courtship messages across to the other sex. Whatever, it worked. Birds are nesting in my front garden for the first time since I’ve lived in central London.

If birds were the first beneficiaries of shutdown, we were next. Humans could hear that birds were maestros, offering a clearly stated theme, varied repetitions and an upbeat ending, often with a high final note to solicit a reply. Oh, so that’s how it’s done? Then French composer Olivier Messaien based much of his music on birdsong. Held in a German prisoner-of-war camp in Poland, far from home, Messaien composed a Quartet for the End of Time which twitters with simulated birdsong and embeds it in concentrated form in a movement titled “Abîme des oiseaux”, an abyss of birds. I have never been moved by this passage or by any of Messiaen’s other mimicries in his interminably long and irredeemably literal Catalogue d’oiseaux. Frankly, birds do it better.

I have similar reservations about Beethoven’s chirp of nightingales in the Sixth Symphony and Mahler’s in his Third. Ravel does it, Janacek does it, and so do Schumann, Grieg, Liszt and many more. Every time I hear the sound of birds imitated in classical music I feel diminished. Birds are perfect creatures, divinely wrought. Human composers are forceful strivers, mere contrivances…..

Read on here.


  • Brian Cooper says:

    Ottorino Respighi also wrote a birdy piece called Gli uccelli.

    As far as I recall, he specified that a particular recording containing real birdsong be used for Pini di Roma. The bit just before we move on to the Via Appia.

    Does anyone know the details about that?

    • Music fan says:

      Yes, the Nightingale recording Respighi specified was tied to a company from which he drew royalties.

      Re: the photo of Tippi Hedrin: Although composer Bernard Herrmann was listed as a consultant on The Birds, the film had no score!

      I, too have noticed the welcome prevalence of birdsong in my area. Also, the rumbling of a train a few miles from my house, usually only audible during the nighttime or wee morning hours, is now plainly heard any time of day.

  • Nijinsky says:

    There’s more than just birds. There’s also water flowing, there’s the wind gently making the leaves in the trees rustle, or humming through grass.

    There are more teachers, and a lot more to learn.

    • John Borstlap says:

      No composer could better tranfer his impressions from nature into pure music than Debussy, without any direct imitation: he expressed his impressions and stylized them into music.

    • Gustavo says:

      What we are discussing are the results of sexual selection (acting through female choice and sperm competition), driving the complexity of male phenotypic expression to ever greater extremes (Meistersinger, Gurre-Lieder and Ballets Russes as opposed to the vocalisations of the Song Thrush, Turtledove and Firebird).

  • Rob says:

    ‘Because there are 8,650 species of birds in the world today, Mr. Carter. It’s estimated that five billion,
    seven hundred and fifty million birds
    live in the United States alone. The five continents of the world…’

  • Murray Citron says:

    The point about the birdsong in the Pastorale Symphony (Nightingale, Quayle, and Cuckoo) is that all time, and all nature, stops to listen to them…and nod their approval.

  • Bruce says:

    To be fair, train stations, factories, and the horns of oceangoing ships all existed by then (although none of them might have been louder than Flagstad…)

  • JamesM says:

    The photo is interesting, from Hitchcock’s movie, in that there is no music in the film. Only the bird sounds, some of which were synthesized. Hitch had Bernard Herrmann plan the sounds with a composer’s ear.

  • JBB says:

    I believe there were steam shovels, cannon, and the .357 magnum in 1947. These all top 100 dB, as do detonated dynamite and spectators at Lord’s. Söderström, lovely a singer as she was, was certainly speaking hyperbolically.

    • Bruce says:

      ^ or perhaps metaphorically, in the sense that there is no more intense experience to be had. (Also arguable, but you can see the point she’s making*)

      *(or rather, the point I’m pretending she’s making ;-))

  • christopher storey says:

    An interesting essay by NL. He might be slightly less enthusiastic about it all if he were woken daily ( now at about 0400 BST ) by several – in fact quite a few – wood pigeons in our garden all going dur dur de dur dur repeatedly at intervals of about 15 seconds. But then, rumour has it that pigeons are always at it …….

  • tomtom says:

    Sorry, birds emphatically do not ‘sing’. Their sounds are specifically territorial markers, and their sounds are at a far higher frequency than humans can detect. The fact that we recognise certain lower pitches that ‘ring a bell’ with our diatonic major and minor scales is pure coincidence! I am a lifelong Messiaen devotee, but he was wrong on so- called bird ‘SONG’.

  • Gustavo says:

    A bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) could be trained to sing Mahler to perfection:


    “Ei gelt? Du! Wird’s nicht eine schöne Welt? Zink! Zink!”

  • Gustavo says:

    „Was mir die Tiere im Walde erzählen“


  • Nijinsky says:

    There was a period in my life when I was away from performed music, mostly. I would spend time riding my bike somewhere, and with colored pencils, and nature at large, draw, amazed at the amount of colors, also amazed at what that does to the senses to the feeling of being something, something alive, someone just being that, alive. Always looking for quiet, and quite often moving away from the clanging of pop music on someone’s radio, as if that beats the sounds of nature. It’s Spring time again, and that means people blasting away from their cars as if such insensitivity to one’s environment (and ears) is happiness and the fulfillment of making it in life.

    When I was seeking peace (which I still am) I found myself awake at night a lot, and for some reason would be outside in the garden feeling a calmness I just knew was there, until I heard the gentle flutter of the leaves in the wind. And knew that had been there the whole time, what had soothed me. Quite profound. Somehow, in the beginning of my adventures with the internet, I had made contact with a lady who said that her nephew had been killed by a serial killer who I was communicating with a bit, and the emotion was so extreme I had to go outside, but then again that transcendent fluttering was there, and it was like the spirit of her nephew was happy to have simply made a friend, to be free to be part of that fluttering, and that outweighed the whole tragedy. She gave me some written remnants of his, and I wrote a whole song cycle, actually, sort of from the imitations of the fluttering as only a beginning.

    I think it was after that that I got away from performed music for awhile, maybe would go sometimes, but at one point, having found enough calm in my life, when I went to sit in the orchestra section of a hall in front of the orchestra, it literally hurt my ears.

    It simply hurt. I’ve also had times that when I was really listening to the sounds on the inside, or doing other creative things quietly, that I walked into a store with their muzak on, and then walked right back out.

    And I really think people use a lot of fabricated music to escape from their feelings rather than get in touch with them. THAT INCLUDES more than too many of the performers people goggle at for their “abilities.” Just like people turn to coffee (which I’ve done, though I’ve learned, actually could make me psychotic, but that might allow the emotions to emerge in a different way like a dream), or cigarettes, or sugar, or drugs, or legal drugs, or deciding others are crazy when they don’t follow social cues, what have you; they turn to all of that to avoid feelings they’ve been made to be uncomfortable with, from what was erroneously called discipline in their childhood, from social profiteering and peer pressure, from indoctrination of all sorts, and the fear that they have to conform, and then use music like a drug to avoid those feelings. And it’s marketed, and people are extremely addicted.

    I don’t think the birds do that.

    Nor the wind

    Nor water

    Not even crickets do that….

  • Edgar Self says:

    10 points for Aliabieff’s “Nightingal”

    Then Schumnns and De Pachmann’s’ Prophet Bird, Mendelssohn’s duet Farewell Song of the Birds of Passag/Abschiedslied der Wander voegel well-remembered from Hulda Lashanska and Kersten Thorborg with George Schick; Swan Lake, Lohengrin, and Parsifal; Stravinsky’s Feuervogel and Song of the Nightingale, Respighi’s Gli Uccelli and Pines of Rome, Mahler’s What the Birds Told Me, Daquin and all the clavecinists.

    Telemann’s Canary cantata, Wotan’s two ravens, Richard Straus’s two larks/zwei Laerchen, Mozart’s starling theme in 17th concerto finale, Papageno, and the Birdman of Alcaraz (which means pelican); “Winterreise, the Pastoral, Messiaen, Rubinstein”s turkey variations,Messager’s pigeons, Honegger’s Pacific 231, and Under the Double Eagle.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I have ny doubts about the Honegger, that piece is about a train, not a bird, and it does not sound like a bird, in contrary.

  • Glenn Winters says:

    The only faux-birdie music I like from classical composers is the cuckoo in Carnival of the Animals. Otherwise, I agree with you.

  • Peter San Diego says:

    Sometimes, the bird-song interaction goes the other way. Some bird species “know” their songs innately, while others have to learn them — and learning the right song is required to attain reproductive success. Linnets are among those whose young males learn their song.

    One day when I was a child, we were listening to a recording of Lucia di Lammermoor (the Roberta Peters – Jan Peerce Met recording, conducted by Leinsdorf). Part of the way through the mad scene, we realized that the flute and soprano duet was being accompanied… by a young male linnet! His accompaniment was very tentative, fragmentary and behind the beat. So we kept repeating the mad scene (clumsily, by lifting and replacing the tonearm), and the bird’s command of the music kept improving. This went on for a good quarter-hour before something alarmed him and he flew off.

    I always wonder whether we ruined his chances for good, or whether he went back to learning his solfege from elders of his own species…