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Why Birds Sing

A Journey into the Mystery of Bird Song

by David Rothenberg

Basic Books, May 2005, Hardcover

Why Birds Sing, by musician and philosopher David Rothenberg, is the first introduction to the world of bird song that combines the insights of science, poetry, and music. The aim is to show that we need all three human ways of knowing to find the fullest understanding of these beautiful, natural sounds which resound around us every spring.

Rothenberg begins with his own experience playing clarinet along wiht birds in the National Aviary, and when he finds that the birds seem to respond much more to his music than he expected, he embarks on a journey from ancient writings to the cutting edge of neuroscience, ending deep in the Australian rainforest where he tries to play along with an Albert's lyrebird, using all he has picked up along the way.

Praise for Why Birds Sing

"This delightfully odd little book is musician Rothenberg's (Sudden Music) attempt to solve a most perplexing question. It all begins with his going to an aviary to play music with a bird. That creature—a White-crested Laughing Thrush—surprises him, changes his music, and sets him to work on this survey. The text's oddity derives from humankind's efforts to get birds' alien music onto the page, and so the reader will encounter Dadaesque mnemonic language, squiggles, sonographs, and musical notation; in fact, those who do not read music may well be lost at several points. Rothenberg applies the "whole toolbox of human talents"—poetry, music, science—and yet, it seems the mystery of why birds sing still resists human intelligence. We meet many interesting characters in these pages: the birds, of course, from song sparrow to mockingbird, and the people, from poets John Clare and Walt Whitman to the composer Olivier Messiaen and many contemporary researchers in diverse, arcane fields. Readers will not shrug off mere starling songs again." — Robert Eagan, Library Journal. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

Quotes from Why Birds Sing

In Persia the nightingale is the bird of a 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 chastized or banned, bird song was considered a form of zikr, or remembrance of God, like 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 form of praise in a devotional culture, a loftier purpose than biology has so far allowed.1

Despite the reverence their culture shows for nightingale song, 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. They were immediately excited. First they 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. Although no one had noticed it before, the bird’s phrases fit right into the sixteen beat recurring tintal cycle that is the most popular of rhythms in that part of the world. Dha Ti Ta Dha | Ti Ta Dha Ti | Dha Dha Ti Ta | Dha Dha Tu Na. Then they got out their tabla drums and rebab violin to jam along with the tape. To the drummers 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.2 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.

In neighboring Iran, in the Persian music tradition, there is a kind of musical ornamentation called Tahrir-e Bolboli, where singers and their accompanists imitate one another with rapid trills and nightinglike quips. Here is a tale about one of their most famous singers, named Qamar:

Once upon a day Qamar went to Darband, a scenic place near Tehran, to take a walk and practice in the open air. Qamar started singing Tahrir-e Bolboli while she was walking among the trees. A nightingale sitting on a branch heard her beautiful song, and he began to sing along. The nightingale was trying to sing like Qamar, and Qamar was trying to sing like the nightingale, just as singers and players meld together in traditional Persian music. The fever rose as they each tried to sing faster and louder. Suddenly the nightingale fell down and died, because it could not keep up with thie great Qamar. Qamar cried deeply for two days. She could not forgive herself for having killed a bird with music. Was all this beauty and intensity nothing more than a fight to the death? Song, whether coming from birds or from humans, must be more than war.3

. . .

In Persian music and literature, and in the Afghan experiment, we see that much of the musicality of bird song lies in its special use of rhythm as much as its organization of pitches and recognizable melodies. I doubt it is an accident that we hear these sounds as being closer to music than to words.

Can we be any more certain that nightingales are making music if the song brings pleasure to our ears? “The supreme notes of the nightingale envelop and surround us,” wrote Lord Gray of Fallodon in the nineteen twenties. “It is as if we were included and embraced in pervading sound.” Yet he is not a complete fan. The song “arrests attention, and compels admiration; it has onset and impact; but it is fitful, broken, and restless. It is a song to listen to, but not to live with.”5

We long for similarities between us and the birds to make us feel more at home in their world. Perhaps animals’ perception is farther from our own than we would admit. Sixty years ago the great ethologist Niko Tinbergen noticed a stickleback fish aggressively displaying toward the window of his fish tank. What did he see there? Certainly no red-bellied fish that would indicate the traditional attack posture. No, the fish was striking toward a red mailman’s truck far in the distance. Why bring in this story? Nick Thompson, the brown thrasher man, mentions this in his critique of anthropomorphism in ethology, saying that this tale shows that this fish has one strange way of reacting to the world, something far from what a human would see. We should not imagine that we share much about aesthetics ire with a fish! He really didn’t like that truck.

Each animal species lives in its own unique ethological world. Aesthetics, should we believe they exist in animals, must be part of that. The starling will never sing “-nee River.” Song sparrows find matching songs to be a mark of aggression. Wood pewees’ elegant songs are theirs alone. Why even claim then to appreciate bird music for some kind of elusive, eternal essence?

. . .

It is one small step from playing a bird back his own song to playing him ours instead. In the 1920s, the British cellist Beatrice Harrison moved to the Surrey countryside and began practicing outdoors in spring. Nightingales began to join along with her, and she heard them matching her arpeggios with carefully timed trills. After acclimatization they would burst into song whenever she began to play. In 1924 she managed to convince Lord Reith, director general of the BBC, that a performance of cello together with wild nightingales in her garden would be the perfect subject for the first outdoor radio broadcast in world history. Reith was initially quite reticent: surely this would be too frivolous a use of our latest technology? What if the birds refuse to cooperate when we’re all set to go?

It took two truckloads of equipment and a bevy of engineers a whole day to set up what could today he arranged in minutes. The microphone was set up close to the nightingale’s usual singing post. Harrison dressed in finery as if for a London premiere, though she sat with her cello in a muddy ditch next to the bird’s bush, so that the one microphone could pick up the both of them. She started with ‘Danny Boy’ and parts of Elgar’s cello concerto, which had been written especially for her. No sound came from the bird. Donkeys honked in the distants, rabbits chewed at the cables, but no bird could be heard. This went on for more than an hour. Things didn’t look promising.

Suddenly, just after 10:45 pm, fifteen minutes before the broadcast was set to end, the nightingale began to sing, along with Dvorak’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” If Hultsch and Todt were listening, they would definitely hear song overlapping here. Was the bird really trying to ‘jam’ the cello message? Most of us would hear something more sensitive, a mixture of bird and Beatrice, an attempt to fit in. Doth the pathetic fallacy rear its ugly head—naive anthropomorphism, or some moonstruck wish to hear music where there really is nothing but practical noise?

I doubt many of the more than one million listeners who tuned into this broadcast were so skeptical. Never before had a bird’s song or any other sound from the wild been sent out over the airwaves. The program was heard as far away as Paris, Barcelona, and Budapest, and many who head read all these famous nightingale tales now heard one on radio for the very first time. Harrison received fifty thousand letters of appreciation. After this late night triumph she became one of the most sought-after cellists of her time.

The cello-nightingale duet was repeated live each year on the BBC for twelve years, and afterwards, the birds alone were broadcast until 1942, when the recording engineer making the show heard a strange, unmistakable droning sound which turned out to be the beginnings of the “Thousand Bomber” raid heading via Dover to Mannheim. He quickly shut off the sound, having the sense not to broadcast such a sound during wartime. The recording was preserved, and you can hear it today,7 this strange soundscape of menacing bombers and incessant nightingales, singing as they have always sung even in the midst of human destruction and the violence that comes with civilization. The airplanes could not silence the nightingale. Here is a bird who cares nothing for the whims of men and the great noises we produce. Does he know his place extends far beyond the disasters of history?


1. John Baily, "Afghan Perceptions of Birdsong," The World of Music, Vol. 39, No. 2, 1997, pp. 51-59.

2. You can hear this bit of Asian interspecies music and read the whole story here.

3. Mahdi Noormohammadi, Some Memories About Musicians, [in Persian] (Tehran: Obeyd Zakani, 1996), pg. 115. In personal communication from Iranian scholar Majid Labbaf.

5. Lord Gray of Fallodon, The Charm of Birds, (New York: Frederick Stokes, 1927), pg. 72, 76.

7. Many fine nightingale recordings, along with excerpts from some of Beatrice Harrison's concert, and the nightingale/ bombers wartime duet, are all on the CD Nightingales: A Celebration, available from the British Trust for Ornithology.

Copyright 2005 David Rothenberg

Table of Contents of Why Birds Sing

  1. You make my heart sing
  2. To drink the sound
  3. She likes it
  4. The song machine
  5. Your tune or mine?
  6. Rhythm and detail
  7. The canary's new brain
  8. Listen with the mockingbird
  9. The opposite of time
  10. Becoming a bird

About David Rothenberg

David Rothenberg is the author of Sudden Music: Improvisation, Art, Nature (University of Georgia Press, 2001) Blue Cliff Record: Zen Echoes (Codhill Press, New Paltz, NY, 2001), Hand's End: Technology and the Limits of Nature (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993), Is It Painful to Think? Conversations with Arne Naess (University Press, University of Minnesota, 1992), and Always the Mountains (University of Georgia Press, 2002).

Rothenberg edited The Book of Music and Nature (Wesleyan University Press, 2001), and Parliament of Minds (SUNY Press, 1999) interviews with leading philosophers in conjunction with a public broadcasting television series of the same name, of which he was a co-producer.

Rothenberg is the editor of the Terra Nova book series, published by MIT Press, presenting environmental issues as culture, not only policy. His own writing has been anthologized in The Best Spiritual Writing 1999 edited by Philip Zaleski (Harper San Francisco) and The Soul of Nature: Visions of a Living Earth by Michael Tobias. His articles have appeared in Parabola, Orion, The Nation, Wired, and other publications.

As a musician, Rothenberg has composed and produced six CD’s. He is currently a professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

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