Part 1.
The Nightingale, the Canary and the Starling


“It is probable that in the artistic hierarchy, birds are the greatest musicians existing on our planet.” —Olivier Messiaen


Is there any music more ancient than the music of birds?

Unsuccessful Recorder Player no. 213 copyReprinted with permission of Phil Neumann

It depends, of course, on what you call music. The world is filled with natural sounds whose rhythms, pitches, and timbres evoke powerful human emotions—whether soothing, inspiring, intriguing, amusing, surprising, threatening, terrifying, or other—just as music does. And some of these natural sounds—the sighing of wind, the lapping of waves, the buzzing of insect wings—while not intentionally produced, we perceive as musical. Birdsong may be heard as only the most elaborate of these natural sounds. Under the broadest recent definitions (think Varèse to Cage), there is nothing problematic about the notion of an avian music. But neither is there anything terribly interesting about it. Lumped in with thunderstorms and waterfalls, it becomes music to our ears only because we make it so on a purely human background of rhythm, melody, timbre, and the rest of our own music.

But do bird vocalizations (and perhaps those of some other non-humans, such as whales) deserve to be called music in a higher sense—not only, or even primarily, because we appreciate them as music in our terms, but because the singing birds (whales, et al.) intentionally create them as music in theirs? Do birds share with us a “capacity” for music? Is music an aesthetic object or system to them?

To our remote ancestors, the question would have been absurd. They no doubt saw birds as spiritual kin, sometimes ancestors, and often as their teachers. It is hard to imagine that birds, or their example, could not have been a source for much of what Homo sapiens first knew about music, the material evidence for which starts to appear along with cave painting, sculpture, and the other arts during the late Pleistocene. In Europe, the earliest instruments in the fossil record are bird bone flutes from ca. 30-40,000 BP. End blown instruments, they easily could have been played to imitate bird songs. Whistling with the lips and perhaps bird call instruments must have been used in hunting birds, so our ancestors would have listened closely in order to imitate them well. They also probably imitated bird calls for signaling one another, having learned the same principle manifest in songbird whistles, that signals across long, open distances are best heard at high frequencies. (

From oral tradition and the earliest notated songs and tunes, birds have been sources of both poetic and musical images, their vocalizations often imitated or evoked. In Europe, songbirds have inspired music since the Middle Ages. The cuckoo, nightingale, and lark were common subjects, and there have been countless more: ravens, blackbirds, sparrows, swallows, thrushes, finches and goldfinches; other (non-passerine) birds have included owls, eagles and hawks; doves and pigeons; and domestic fowl, especially hens and roosters. The vast catalogue of bird-inspired music ranges from the simplest songs to concertos and other large-scale orchestral works.

What is equally significant is that the interest in music of another species goes in both directions. In Classical antiquity, the legend of Orpheus charming wild beasts with his voice and lyre establishes the power of music to affect animals beyond ourselves. A famous story recounts how Saint Francis stopped by the roadside between Cannaio and Bevagno and preached to a flock of birds. A century and a half later a similar tale recounts what happened when Francesco Landini played his organetto for a large flock of songbirds. As his contemporary Filippo Villani tells it, one summer morning Landini and his company had been walking through the Tuscan countryside and at some point took shelter from the heat under a tree where “a thousand small birds were singing.” They decided to see if the bird songs would increase or decrease as a result of his playing.

“As the music started, one saw birds, which had moved closer to hear, become silent as if astonished; then the birds again took up the song, doubling it, demonstrating incalculable beauty and remarkably a nightingale came to within a braccia [=58 cm] above the head of Francesco and his little organ.”

There are a number of references to Landini charming flocks of songbirds, and in his essay on the Italian Ars Nova (Duffin, A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music, pp. 210 ff.), landiniAlexander de Blanchy interprets them as metaphorical reminders of the composer/organist’s ability to move listeners. Based on my experiences with birds, I find the accounts quite plausible on their face; It is likely that the flute-like tones of the organetto is part of what commanded the birds’ attention. But there also is a good chance that the form of the music, its rapid cascading of notes, had an equally powerful effect on them.

The ability of birds to mimic human sounds also has been known from ancient times, and many cultures that have kept caged birds—starlings, robins, finches, goldfinches, and others—for the beauty of their song also have endeavored to teach them to sing. In Europe, recorders, or later specialized bird flageolets, were used for this instruction, and we have at least one collection The Bird Fancyer’s Delight (1715), with tunes supposedly appropriate to a dozen species. From the 15th century on, canaries were bred in Europe and especially favored for the beauty of their natural song and ability to learn simple melodies.

Georg Philipp Telemann wrote a famous funeral cantata for one of these poor fellows that was killed and eaten by a cat. We know practically nothing about the genesis of the “Canary Cantata,” Cantata oder Trauer-Musik eines kunsterfahrenen Kanarien-Vogels, als derselbe zum grÃssten Leidwesen seines Herrn Possessoris verstorben (Cantata or Funeral Music for an Artistically Trained Canary Whose Demise Brought the Greatest Sorrow to his Master). The work dates from around 1737, and there is some speculation he wrote it for a friend or on commission for a patron whose beloved canary had been killed.

Nowadays, people tend to interpret the cantata ironically and perform it mostly for laughs. The cat who killed and ate the bird is roundly cursed in a couple of arias, and because the cantata ends with such a curse, it’s easy enough to imagine Telemann writing tongue in cheek. But that may be hearing it with a 20th/21st-century ear. The cantata’s “tragicomic” ambiguity of affect may be real and, if so, perhaps expresses a deeper ambivalence toward its subject, rooted in a culture whose religion saw animals as having no souls. In that context, one might feel pity for a dead bird, something only permissible as sorrow over the loss of a beautiful thing of this world, something which inevitably must be relinquished.

Another musical tale from a half-century after Telemann’s cantata illustrates the mixing of humor with sorrow even better. In 1784, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart bought a starling from a Vienna pet shop because, he wrote in his journal, he heard it whistle a theme from a piano concerto he had just composed. How the bird could have learned this melody, and whether it was in fact from Mozart’s concerto or just something very similar, have been matters of speculation; but Mozart himself (who had an awfully good ear) was convinced.

The starling lived in Mozart’s flat for 3 years, and when it died in 1787, he gave the bird a huge funeral, involving a procession with hymns and paid mourners. Mozart wrote and recited a poem for the occasion. Some commentators have seen this as evidence of his emotional immaturity; or have suggested it involved displaced grief over the recent death of his father, with whom the composer had a difficult relationship and whose passing a week earlier he had barely noted. Whether or not these psychological explanations have merit, it would appear that as with de Blanchy, scholars are dismissing what is right on the surface and missing perhaps the simplest explanation—that Mozart had bonded with the bird and sincerely grieved at its death. It is not difficult to imagine him doing so. He would have been constantly interacting with another animal that had a strong personality and keen acoustical sensibility.

Mozart’s commemorative poem is semi-humorous. He imagines the bird up in the heavens now, praising him “without pay.” And he opens the verse by calling him “a little fool.” The German word he uses, however, Narr, also could be translated as joker or jester, a quality Mozart certainly saw and valued in himself.

The first composition Mozart completed after the starling’s funeral (barely a week later) was “A Musical Joke.” The piece satirizes small-town musicians—deliberately amateurish, incompetent in places, banal in others, and over-the-top pretentious in still others.

Ornithologists Meredith West and Andrew King ( have studied this work and believe Mozart was deliberately incorporating his starling’s ARKive image ARK023113 - European starlingmusical style into it. Excerpting and paraphrasing from their 1990 essay, they see the signature of a starling’s music in Mozart’s “illogical piecing together” of musical material, which they say is in keeping with the way starlings sometimes intertwine whistled tunes—also in his “awkward fracturing of musical phrases at unexpected points” and in his “drawn-out, wandering phrases of uncertain structure” (especially in one overly-long cadenza), which they claim to be characteristic of starling soliloquies. They also note that the late musicologist Alan Tyson believed that “A Musical Joke,” although completed just 8 days after the starling’s funeral, was composed in fragments between 1784 and 1787—the period exactly coinciding with the starling’s life. Tyson also identified an excerpt in the piece quoted from the same piano concerto that the starling whistled. In other words, the “joke” may have been Mozart’s homage to his departed companion.

My late friend Mal Raff, who was both a very knowledgeable birder and a superb jazz pianist and vibraphonist, kept a pet starling for many years and said much of West and King’s characterization “would go along with my observations … during the 16 years he was with us. He did make some notable non-starling sounds, along with a few words and phrases … but he would also ‘sing’, incorporating some his ‘other sounds’, apparently at random, amidst his song. He always had a ‘theme’ which sounded at least partly like normal outdoor starling sounds, but ‘fractured’ as you described. During his younger years, when he was flight-able, he would fly to my shoulder while I was playing the piano … and sing quite loudly in my ear … perhaps competing, perhaps contributing. But he was always the ‘music’ bird … turn on the stereo, music on TV or on the computer, and he was ‘in there’ improvising his own part.”

We will continue this tale birds and music next week, with discussion of the unusual abilities of a few other species.


Don’t miss:

Frances Feldon and Galax Quartet in “Wingin’ It”

FFeldon_67-1Sunday, November 17 at 4:30PM
The Jazzschool
2087 Addison St., Berkeley
Reservations recommended as space is limited.
For tickets: