Pay attention to the mockingbird. This bird makes quite a racket. He imitates a variety of other bird songs, repeating them over and again, sometimes for hours at a time. We wouldn’t have dubbed this bird the mockingbird if we didn’t think its conduct was mildly offensive to other birds.
But now pay closer attention. You’ll notice that this skilled bird isn’t only imitating the tunes of other species. Like a DJ, he’s sampling them and transposing, bending, and manipulating them into his distinct shape.
We can always tell it’s a mockingbird because of his unique and specific method of making music from the things he hears in the world around him, not because of his copying.
My colleagues and I decided to look deeply into the mockingbird’s process, employing the analytical tools of three separate fields at the same time: biology, music, and neurology. Our work, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in early May, claims that the mockingbird, one of the most complex-singing American birds, employs musical strategies that are familiar to composers of various types of human music.
Mockingbirds use four compositional tactics to make their lovely song: timbre change, pitch shift, stretch, and squeeze, according to our hypothesis. This allows the birds to smoothly transition from one sound to the next, pleasing both songbirds and humans. This total activity was dubbed morphing, a term more commonly associated with imagery but equally applicable to audio.
I’m a philosopher and musician who normally doesn’t work on scholarly articles. But, in popular works like Why Birds Sing, Bug Music, and Survival of the Beautiful, I’ve written about scientific technique many times. All of these works place science in the context of culture, and the majority of them deal with animal music in some way.
Long fascinated by the mockingbird’s compositional methods, I eventually decided to delve into his sense of shape and organization. Dave Gammon, professor of biology at Elon University, who has researched the vast population of mockers on his campus for many years, was the best expert in listening to these birds I could find. He knows the names of roughly 20 different singing males and can tell by ear which species each one imitates and which noises are not imitations at all. … “When you listen to a mockingbird, they repeat a single word three or four times, then do something new, and then do something new again,” he explains.
“And after a minute of listening, you’ve heard 20 to 25 different songlines, and they’re continually coming up with new ones,” Dave says. You might have a hard time recognizing anything that was repeated after listening to them for ten minutes. The diversity is enormous, and it is loud and obvious. I’ve always had the impression that they were creating with such a wide range of sounds, and that the arrangement of their song phrases could be perceived by humans.”
Dave also insisted on making a comparison between these tracks and human music. I was a little hesitant to do it as someone who has studied ethnomusicology extensively. Opens a can of worms right away! What kind of human music is this? But his examples wowed me: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for pitch change, Huun-Huur-Tu, a Tuvan throat-singing group for timbre change, and Idina Menzel from Disney’s Frozen II for stretch. All we needed was a squeeze example, so I instantly thought of hip-hop, and I was confident that Kendrick Lamar’s album Damn would provide one. It had everything, and the album’s final track, “Duckworth,” sounded more mockingbird-like than anything else we heard. It isn’t for nothing that it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music Composition.
Okay, we’ve got all these great examples; look, mockingbirds use noises in the same way that people do. Why can’t birds make music? We term what we do “music,” so why can’t they?
Lead author Tina Roeske of the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt said, “It’s fine to imply the bird is doing something.” “However, we must study the facts to demonstrate that our statements are supported by the evidence in science.” She created the algorithms that were used to test the hypotheses in the study. Our theories are supported by the statistics, and that is what it takes for something to be considered science.” She outlines her strategy: “I’m the type of scientist who prefers the not-so-sexy stuff. I just sit in front of the computer and listen to stuff, trying to figure out what’s going on.”
“I mean, it’s like discovering proof that something is true when I can show that a pattern that I observe and possibly find lovely is genuinely there,” she explains. It’s not a coincidence. It’s there; start thinking about why we have such a strong, subjective reaction to the mockingbird’s song as well. And that’s quite intriguing. And I don’t think the analysis detracts from the song’s overall beauty.”
In my works, I’ve long advocated that the best way for humans to understand any phenomenon is to incorporate all of the diverse types of knowledge available to us. Mockingbirds are mentioned in poetry, such as Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” “Listen to the Mockingbird,” says the music. According to ornithology, the mockingbird imitates the following species. Look at these figures, says neuroscience, which suggests our instincts regarding pitch, timbre, stretch, and squeezing are correct.
Each type of human knowledge has its own set of truth standards. None of these diminishes or cancels out the others. However, everyone can be moved by the beauty of a bird’s song, albeit in different ways. In his book The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin noted that birds have an innate aesthetic sense. “That’s why they came up with such lovely songs,” I told an Elon University reporter. “Determining what they’re up to necessitates the use of the complete spectrum of human kinds of knowledge.
The author is David Rothenberg is a respected professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.