On 27 May 1784 Mozart purchased a European starling (Sturnus vulgaris, above). The pleasure he expressed at hearing the bird’s song—“Das war schon!”—is all the more understandable when one compares his notation of it with the beginning of the last movement of his Piano Concerto in G major, K.453, which was written around the same time.
Three years later the bird died, and he buried it with much ceremony. Heavily veiled mourners marched in a procession, sang hymns, and listened to a graveside recitation of a poem Mozart had composed for the occasion.
Although many questions remain about starlings’ vocal capacities, a recent study supports a definite link between their mimicry and their lively social interactions, illuminating Mozart’s response to his beloved pet’s death.
This according to “Mozart’s starling” by Meredith J. West and Andrew P. King (American scientist LXXVIII/2 [May–August 1990] pp. 106–114).
Below, the concerto movement sung by Mozart’s starling.
All human societies have music with a rhythmic beat, typically produced with percussive instruments such as drums. The set of capacities that allows humans to produce and perceive music appears to be deeply rooted in human biology, but an understanding of its evolutionary origins requires cross-taxa comparisons.
Drumming by palm cockatoos (Probosciger aterrimus) shares the key rudiments of human instrumental music, including manufacture of a sound tool, performance in a consistent context, regular beat production, repeated components, and individual styles.
Throughout 131 drumming sequences produced by 18 males, the beats occurred at nonrandom, regular intervals; yet individual males differed significantly in the distribution parameters of their beat patterns, indicating individual drumming styles. Autocorrelation analyses of the longest drumming sequences further showed that they were highly regular and predictable, like human music.
These discoveries provide a rare comparative perspective on the evolution of rhythmicity and instrumental music in our own species, and show that a preference for a regular beat can have other origins before being co-opted into group-based music and dance.
This according to “Tool-assisted rhythmic drumming in palm cockatoos shares key elements of human instrumental music” by Robert Heinsohn, Christina N. Zdenek, et al. (Science advances III/6 ).
Above, a male cockatoo (right) drumming with a stick for a female; below, a video produced by the research team.
The Inventur und Schätzung der Joseph Haydnischen Kunstsachen of 1809 is preserved in the Musiksammlung of the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.
One of the items listed therein is a living parrot, which used to call Haydn by his name and could sing the beginning of the national anthem. The parrot was sold for 1415 florins.
This according to “Haydn als Sammler” by Otto Erich Deutsch, an article included in Zum Haydn-Jahr 1959 (Österreichische Musikzeitschrift XIV/5–6 [May–June 1959] pp. 188–194).
Below, perhaps a descendant.
The song of the hermit thrush, a common North American songbird, is renowned for its apparent musicality and has attracted the attention of musicians and ornithologists for more than a century.
Recent research has shown that hermit thrush songs, like much human music, use pitches that are mathematically related by simple integer ratios and follow the harmonic series. These findings add to a small but growing body of research showing that a preference for small-integer ratio intervals is not unique to humans; such findings are particularly relevant to the ongoing nature/nurture debate about whether musical predispositions such as the preference for consonant intervals are biologically or culturally driven.
This according to “Overtone-based pitch selection in hermit thrush song: Unexpected convergence with scale construction in human music” by Emily Doolittle, et al. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America CXI/46 [18 November 2014] pp. 16616–16621).
Below, a hermit thrush video that will fascinate your cats; more recordings, including slowed-down ones, are here.
The importance of birds and bird song in Afghan culture is embedded in Afghanistan’s two official languages—Dari and Pashto—in which the nightingale, a central poetic symbol, occurs in texts sung by urban and rural singers.
The songs of particular birds are associated with calls to prayer, and mullahs confirm that birdsong is regarded within Sufism as a form of religious singing; birds are welcomed at Sufi shrines, where feeding them is considered an act of piety.
Sometimes caged birds are brought to musical performances in Herāt, and when they are stirred to sing by hearing music their sounds are heard as an integral and treasured part of the performance.
This according to “Afghan perceptions of birdsong” by John Baily (The world of music XXXIX/2  pp. 51–59).
Above, an Afghan dove with a friend; below, feeding the doves in Mazār-i-Sharīf.
Filed under Animals, Asia
The serinette (after the French serin, canary) is a very small barrel organ that was used to teach repertoire to pet songbirds in the 18th century. These instruments were made in England, France, and Germany.
In 2007 an independent organ and barrel organ builder affiliated with the mechanical instruments center of Waldkirch in Baden-Württemberg embarked upon a series of modern reconstructions of the serinette. His main sources were the description of the serinette found in Dom Bédos de Celles’s L’art du facteur d’orgues (Paris, 1778) and two instruments from Mirecourt.
This according to “Serinetten französischer Bauart aus Waldkirch” by Achim Schneider (Das mechanische Musikinstrument: Journal der Gesellschaft für selbstspielende Musikinstrumente XXXVI/107 [April 2010] pp. 6–9; the author is the organ builder in question.
Above, La serinette by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin; below, a working serinette.
The vocalizations of the pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) include calls (e.g., food begging [above], alarms, cat scolding), calls incorporated into songs, and pure songs. The latter category may include melismas, ostinatos, transpositions, inversions, variations, and rhythmic effects such as additive and divisive patterns.
Cultural manifestations include duets, antiphonal and canonic effects, and unisons. They also mimic other birds and unexpected sources such as dogs, cats, humans, and machines.
This according to “Decoding the song of the pied butcherbird: An initial survey” by Hollis Taylor (TRANS: Revista transcultural de música/Transcultural music review XII [July 2008]). Below, a pied butcherbird duet followed by a solo.