Birdsong: Language or Music?
by Hollis Taylor
- View Hollis Taylor's Biography
Hollis Taylor is a violinist/composer, zoömusicologist, ornithologist and an ARC Future Fellow at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.
Birdsong: Language or Music?
Is birdsong a language? Is it music? Or is birdsong merely language- or music-like? Whatever our answer, potentially fruitful cross-species comparisons are often sidelined by overt or veiled claims of human uniqueness (Taylor 2020, 8). For instance, although many species possess sophisticated cognitive abilities that predate human language, linguocentrism and the assumption that culture depends upon human language can impede our understanding of animal capacities. This article will rebuff requirements that language is a mandatory tool for the possession of knowledge, as well as that one must have a human-like sense of intentionality or a concept for music in order to make it.
The musical accomplishments of songbirds are often denied by academic gatekeepers in both the natural sciences and humanities, who instead settle for an impoverished notion of birdsong. However, I believe that the considerable vocal achievements of the Australian pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) (Fig. 1) could change minds about animal creativity, inventiveness, and musicality. I record pied butcherbirds' hours-long nocturnal songs each spring and analyse their elaborate combinatorial vocalisations as I would other musics. Some of this analysis will feature below in the section "Avian mimicry versus human musical 'genius'".
Figure 1: A pied butcherbird photographed in Miami Beach, Queensland by the author.
Birdsong serves as a focus of attention for scientists, philosophers, linguists, and musicians, as well as everyday people. Researchers in the natural sciences now allow that animal communication systems like the calls and songs of birds may transmit much more information than previously believed and could contain language-like structure (Kershenbaum et al. 2014; Fishbein et al. 2020). Aristotle suspected various species of songbird to have dialects (Fusco 2014, 46), which was ultimately confirmed by ethologists (see, for instance, Baker and Cunningham 1985). Such confirmation serves to underscore birdsong's resemblance to language.
Much as borrowed animal melodies and rhythms appear in our music, stories of (often speaking) animals are woven into the fabric of Western narratives from Aesop onwards. Animal studies scholar Anna Barcz (2017, 102) advocates for "the language of culture that experiments with expressing animal experience in different methods, figures, and strategies; performing it artistically; construing animal language as textual existence, not always comprehensible to humans but fascinating for artistic representation." Along these lines, zoömusicologists have begun to investigate the musicality inherent in animal acoustic constructs and to identify overlaps with diverse human music genres. Within this highly charged and disputed zone, this article will consider whether birdsong's most apt and utile metaphor is language or music.
Vocal learning in songbirds
The cultural transmission of birdsong offers an outstanding context for addressing both language and music. An intriguing circumstance bears on our discussion: humans are the only primate species with the rare and specialised cerebral capacity for vocal learning. Our closest primate relatives are not vocal learners. Even the elaborate songs of gibbons are genetically inherited (Brockelman and Schilling 1984). Aside from us, vocal learning appears limited to songbirds (constituting about half of the world's 10,000 bird species), parrots, and hummingbirds, as well as elephants, bats, and marine mammals.
Aristotle (350 BCE) made one of the earliest observations that songbirds learn their songs (Arbo and Arbo 2008, 262), and Darwin (1871) noted the parallels between language acquisition in human infants and song learning in birds. In the 1950s, ethologists began to unravel the song acquisition process and what these social signals communicate (Koehler 1951; Thorpe 1954). The avian learning trajectory progresses from subsong's initial tentative notes, to the intermediate stages of unstable and highly variable "plastic song", to the mature adult stage of "crystallized song" (Goldstein, King, and West 2003; Taylor 2021). Learning underwrites complexity and variety not possible in innate birdsong (Slater 1986; Beecher and Brenowitz 2005).
The terms "call" and "song" are not interchangeable. Calls are meaningful, information-carrying social sounds associated with maintenance activities. Shorter and simpler than songs, calls likely possess an innate basis, whilst songs are learned. However, most ethologists have moved away from the designations "learned" and "innate," which suggest clear boundaries (see, for instance, Thorpe 1958, 557; Marler 1994, 591, 614; Marler 1997, 503). Past categorical thinking has given way to a more nuanced understanding of the joint role of genetic and environmental instructions.
Since at least the third century BCE, humans have capitalised on the fact that birdsongs must be learned and rehearsed: avian admirers encouraged caged birds to sing. Musical, even mechanical, instruments (and later tape recordings) played a part in song tutoring of songbirds. Manuals to train canaries, nightingales, and other birds whose sense of musicality overlaps our own include The Bird Fancyer's Delight, which is still in print (Godman  1955; also see Beeton 1860; Stainer 1899). While birds have successfully learned our melodies, the table has also been turned, with birdsong providing inspiration to composers through the centuries (Taylor 2011).
Birdsong can be beautiful, even arresting — but what does birdsong mean? Musician and literary scholar Alan Powers (2003, 45) writes: "Even to call bird sounds 'song' is to project a certain relatively narrow range of human activity. For birds, what we call their 'songs' are more often curses and threats, defiance or concession, arrests and apprehensions, or even weather bulletins and realty leases." Birdsong is a biomarker that, in addition to advertising territorial ownership and the intention and ability to defend it, may indicate species and individual identity. Birdsong is likewise a biomarker for humans — a cross-species communiqué. The distribution of birds is a significant tool for measuring our impact on them, and a singing bird demonstrates that the individual is in sufficient condition to take time and energy away from activities even more critical to survival.
Less important to zoömusicologists than a sound's potential meaning is how sound is aesthetically deployed. Expressed in another way, zoömusicologists do search for meaning, but it is musical meaning. Semiotician and musician Dario Martinelli (2002, 103) encourages zoömusicologists to seek out a bird's own concept of their song. Whilst I can strive to approach music without an anthropo-, ethno-, or eurocentric bias, my analysis will always be limited by my physiology. This is how pied butcherbirds first attracted me, with their mutual sense of musicality.
In addition to exploring overlaps between birdsong and a multitude of human music genres, one of zoömusicology's key questions is: "What is the surplus that is not captured in technical descriptions and functional accounts of animal music?" (Taylor 2020, 18). Zoömusicologists are not alone in this hunch. While the natural sciences may characterise a song's function solely as serving reproductive opportunity or survival utility, some scientists have suggested that inventiveness in song far exceeds biological necessity (see, for instance, Craig, 1943; Sotavalta, 1956; Thorpe 1966; Armstrong, 1973; Baptista and Keister, 2005).
As a focus of scholarly activity in both the natural sciences and the humanities, birdsong collects rich comparisons to music but also to language. Before proceeding to argue which is the worthier container to drop birdsong into, it seems advisable to first review various attempts to distinguish between language and music.
The connections and disconnections between language and music
To rehearse the full range of requisite attributes for language (see Hockett 1960; Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch 2002) or music (see Fitch 2015; Taylor 2017) is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, a very abridged review shows the range of discussion on this topic, beginning with how the two might differ. In Music, Language, and the Brain, neuroscientist Ani Patel (2008, 184) sets music apart from language in this way: "If a musical melody is a group of tones in love with each other, then a linguistic melody is a group of tones that work together to get a job done." Since repetition is so prolific in music (and birdsong), its essential purpose cannot be framed as communicative in an information-carrying way (Margulis 2014, 13). Ambiguity is a musical asset, fostering a fecund network of associations rather than "objective" content to "get a job done." Scholars regularly acknowledge the difficulty in verbally or textually characterising musical emotion or musical knowledge. For instance, philosopher Diana Raffman (1993) draws on the term "musical ineffability." Musicologist Robert Walser (1991) and linguist Mark Johnson (1987) have also underlined the rich but non-propositional quality of musical meaning, including its embodied and social aspects. Whilst a melody or rhythm may hold intra-cultural meaning, musical meaning remains open to interpretation between cultures (see Stevens 2004, 433; Fitch 2005, 3).
Whilst the above scholars do differentiate human music and language, others would blur the distinction between the two by framing music as the "universal language" since, although it displays considerable diversity, music is found in all human cultures unless it is suppressed. However, music's meaning both bridges disparate cultures and is tempered by them. Most ethnomusicologists concur that the quest for musical universals has been less than fruitful. "Statistical universals" replaced the much anticipated and sought-after unambiguous ones, moving the search for universals to the spheres of music perception and cognition (see Tan, Pfordresher, and Harré 2010, 298).
Even as musicologists discount "universal" in the cliché of music as the universal language, we might nevertheless pose the question, Is music a language? Composer François-Bernard Mâche (1983/1992, 73) warns against the dialectic: "Language distinguishes man, and music is a kind of language, therefore music is a purely human cultural fact." Music is, for Mâche, neither a language nor limited to humans.
With every prying apart of music and language, we bump into yet another link elsewhere. Given these connections between the two, a quest for birdsong's most efficacious metaphor could presume that both are germane. Here lies a core problem: the significance of the distinction between musical and linguistic interpretation is beholden to language's upper hand vis-à-vis prestige differentials in operation in the culture of the academy. I hold that birdsong will be found deficient if it is slotted exclusively into the language category. Birdsong is both less than and more than language and so will never be fully and richly described if we restrict our comparisons of it to language. In a similar vein, philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno found music not to be a language but believed that music suffers from its inescapable similarity to it (Adorno and Gillespie 1993).
Philosopher Dominique Lestel (2002, 40-41), would move us out of this impasse. He stresses that a "great many semiotic phenomena" exist among animals, even if these complex communication systems have yet to be adequately described and differentiated from human language (2002, 40-41). In challenging that language is an essential condition for culture, he advances the proposition that "animal communication is part of a wider semiosphere [where] living beings interact not as mechanical entities but as messages" (ibid., 47). Biosemiotician Wendy Wheeler (2014, 69) concurs: "all life, not just human life and culture, is semiotic and interpretive." In this way, Lestel and Wheeler allow for the possibility of musical meaning. In narrowing the focus from semiosphere to language, biologist Con Slobodchikoff (2012, 44) nonetheless argues that a number of species move beyond simple instinctive communication to display the capacity for language that allows them to communicate complicated information, albeit a language designed to suit their species-specific needs.
Avian mimicry versus human musical "genius"
Our discussion of meaning and musicality vis-à-vis birdsong requires a short detour on the topic of mimicry, an arena of cross-species activity that has implications for how we assess and value a bird's song. Renowned ethologist W. H. Thorpe (1964, 744) defined mimicry as "imitation by birds of sounds outside their specifically characteristic vocalisations." A dictionary entry fails to capture the lavishness of avian mimicry, which violates a bird's species-specific song conventions. Mimicry seems to flout what linguists call computational efficiency — the simplest way to communicate something. Is mimicry a cover band, a playlist, an amused glance at other species, or an inside joke? Could it imply a narrative, and might it archive now extinct species?
"Other orders of being have their own literatures," notes poet Gary Snyder (1990, 212). "Narrative in the deer world is a track of scents that is passed on from deer to deer with an art of interpretation which is instinctive. A literature of blood-stains, a bit of piss, a whiff of estrus, a hit of rut, a scrape on a sapling and long gone" (ibid.). To detach a sound from its original meaning or function would suggest a capacity many assume to be language-like and uniquely human, with an order of elaboration and complexity beyond what is vital for survival and reproduction. However, instances of birds mimicking the whinny of a horse, the meow of a cat, and the barking of a dog, as well as mobile phone ringtones, camera shutters, car alarms (and the alarm calls of many other species of bird), and a carpenter at work serve as strong testimony to the polylingual, or polymusical, capacity of these vocalists. The rebranding and repurposing in avian mimicry return us to the semiosphere that Lestel and Wheeler describe.
Mimicry is equally pertinent to musicking humans. Composers and improvisers are keen borrowers, from one another and from their own past works. Mimicry is essential to learning and making music. However, potentially productive cross-species comparisons are often sidelined by the human exceptionalism inherent in received definitions of music, with requirements that align with Western art music, whether overt or veiled, for originality, creativity, and transcendent genius. Philosopher Lydia Goehr (1992) describes how works started to be launched as "high art" around 1800, with a newly minted distinction between utility and aesthetic merit seeing product overshadow function and occasion. Some birdsongs display impressive inventiveness and beauty, but must a bird sing original vocalisations with great prowess (or even "genius"), or might being an adroit mimic and skilful remixer be acceptable? This is not to deny the inventiveness found in some birdsongs but to highlight the mutable (and speciesist) way we set standards and make assessments (Taylor 2017, 186).1
Hand in hand with elevating "high art", "musical works", and "genius" were the demotion and devaluation of a variety of musicians and music practices, including songbirds and birdsong. Composer Igor Stravinsky, for example, allows that while birdsong, along with a rippling brook and a breeze in a tree, might suggest music or amuse us: "They are promises of music; it takes a human being to keep them: a human being sensitive to nature's many voices, of course, but who in addition feels the need of putting them in order and who is gifted for that task with a very special aptitude" (Stravinsky 1947, 24). In this instance, the elitism, politics, and power inherent in Western art music — founded on human exceptionalism and produced by a genius (male) composer — are on full display.
One wonders what, if any, was Stravinsky's experience with complex birdsongs. Did he fall into the trap of comparing the most sophisticated human music with the simplest of birdsongs? Brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum) sing thousands of song phrases, which appear to be improvised (Boughey and Thompson 1976). Sedge warblers (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus) compose "a seemingly endless stream of constantly varying, unique song types" (Catchpole 1979, 55). The repertoire of nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos) contains a thousand-plus song elements from which they draw to perform over two hundred distinct phrases (Todt and Hultsch 1998).
The pied butcherbird is another species well-acquainted with a large and continuously varying repertoire, developed over the course of their some thirteen million years on this planet (Low 2014). Structural devices familiar to human listeners like repetition and variation, combinatoriality, shape and balance (Fig. 2), and alternation of contrasting themes are commonplace in their rich, liquid crystal vocalisations, as are conventions for phrase endings as detailed by composer Arnold Schoenberg (1967) (Fig. 3). Other pied butcherbird overlaps with diverse human music practice includes activities like rehearsals, warming up, music for certain times and places, music as a marketing tool, and singing lessons.
Figure 2: Shape and balance in a pied butcherbird duet.
Figure 3: Five pied butcherbird phrases with endings displaying rhythmic reduction as advocated by composer Arnold Schoenberg.
On the topic of song complexity, one individual delivered a three-and-a-half-hour solo song on Magnetic Island, Queensland. The dozen main phrases all see permutations, several with over 100 variations each.
For instance, Phrase A accommodates twenty-two entry and stopping points, eleven of which are detailed in Figure 4. Put together with the modularity of snap-together beads, these song phrases indicate that the bird is not managing (or "chunking") these phrases as an indivisible package. S/he is not on automatic. The phrases are energized by flexible length and a constant change of direction, as well as by rattles, trills, and steep descending frequency sweeps, large leaps, and sudden switchbacks. A dazzling variety of timbres includes a wow sound, a chip sound, six rattle types and one quasi-rattle, as well as a whistle sound that brings to mind a heritage telephone ring. This astonishing feat has a parallel in the eighteenth-century musical games known as ars combinatoria. Ready-made motifs were selected by throwing dice, spinning a top, or choosing numbers at random where a small number of components could result in a superabundance of combinations; Haydn and Mozart participated in such events (Ratner 1970). The performance appears to exceed what a human musician could accomplish.
Figure 4: A partial catalogue of Phrase A's combinatorial variants from a pied butcherbird on Magnetic Island. Lines and boxes trace areas of commonality.
Despite these avian accomplishments, and although Western art music represents a minute portion of musical phenomena in all times and places, it nonetheless takes up a vast amount of space and deposits biases in its wake (see, for instance, Becker 1986).
Language, birdsong, and animal consciousness
Function, consciousness, and intentionality play an outsized role in discussions of animal activities. In such circumstances, a spirit of generosity asks us to consider whether our understanding of animals might have many empty spaces, rather than to assume that the empty space is inside an animal's brain (see, for instance, Despret 2021; de Waal 2016). Similarly, ethologist Marian Stamp Dawkins avoids an "us versus them" perspective, believing it is "simpler and more plausible to think that many other species do have conscious experiences than that they do not" (1993, 2). Language aside, animals are increasingly recognised for "having concepts and intentions" (Scharff and Petri 2011). Ethologist Jonathan Balcombe (2010, 43-44) argues forcefully against the prerequisite of language for consciousness, or at least higher-order consciousness, characterising this as "one of the most insidious and destructive ideas of all time: that you need language to think." Psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist (2009, 110) concurs: "Language is necessary neither for categorization, nor for reasoning, nor for concept formation, nor perception: it does not itself bring the landscape of the world in which we live into being."
Nonetheless, some continue to consider language as a critical tool for the possession of knowledge, like philosopher Theodore Gracyk. He holds that nightingales do not make music because they are not "conceptually informed"; Gracyk cleaves to language as a critical tool for evaluating aesthetic experiences (2013, 63). However, following Stephen Davies (2012, 29), the belief that you cannot create music without a concept for it would withhold the music label from all but a few cultures. Philosopher of mind Peter Carruthers (2004) challenges the belief that every human music performance is consciously theorised, believing that many differences in mental processes between humans and other animals are likely trivial, while neuroscientist Bernard Baars (1988, 43-44) underlines how we tend to be least conscious of our most proficient skills. Ethnomusicologist Timothy Rice (1997, 115) also pushes back against Gracyk's stance, describing instances of "highly sophisticated nonverbal musical understanding" among humans.
Some would extend to birds and other animals the capacity of musicality, regardless of their purported conceptual status (e.g., Craig 1943; Sotavalta 1956; Szöke et al. 1969; Rothenberg 2005, 2008, 2013; Taylor 2010, 2017; Roeske, Kelty-Stephen, and Wallot 2017). Such reports underline that birdsong is musical to our ears, but is there more encoded in these songs? Might birds also be discussing the weather or gossiping in their artful songs (see Lorenz 1949/2002, but contra Lorenz, see Pepperberg and Schinke-Llano 1991; Pepperberg 2008; Slobodchikoff 2012)? With birdsong's correspondences to both music and language, one could even draw an analogy to opera, but for me, it is even more straightforward. Speculations, concepts, and theories aside, the musician in me simply and absolutely recognises the musician in songbirds. Attempts to speculate on the communicative capacity of a lion — "If a lion could speak, we could not understand him" (Wittgenstein 1953, 223) — or to extrapolate the inner life of a bat (Nagel 1974) are inconclusive, but when I hear a birdsong, I do understand it musically. In the case of pied butcherbirds, though many of their acoustic constructs align with my musical practice, some of their song parameters are strange to us, like an interval of silence spanning several seconds or more following each phrase. Nonetheless, while stopping short of equivalence, a number of birdsongs sound musical to humans on our own terms and submit straightforwardly to analysis as understood in the Western tradition. In short, songbirds are not my thought partners but my musical colleagues.
The search for linkages and connections, signs of kinship and affinity includes philosopher Michel Serres (1995, 39), who asks "What language do the things of the world speak, that we might come to an understanding with them, contractually?" Meanwhile, philosopher Lucie Cadková (2015) argues that human language is merely a special case of language and so rejects characterising it as an exclusive capacity of a single species. This harks back to Jakob von Uexküll (1934/2010), who made major contributions to theoretical biology: his concept of Umwelten describes how meaning is made everywhere all the time, thus disconnecting meaning from language's tight grip. Practicing musicians understand the deep knowledge that dwells in music, as does philosopher of music Kathleen Higgins, who cautions that the dominance of the linguistic model in philosophy obfuscates the contributions music makes to our lives. She resists "philosophical models that see the structure of language as the structure of thought", arguing instead for music's significant role in the philosophy of mind (Higgins 2012, 9).
Embracing approaches and insights from diverse disciplines
No one discipline can provide comprehensive answers to such intractable problems. Some question whether even intra-specific comprehension of music is possible, whilst others believe comparative, multicomponent research across species is the best path in order to investigate the biological basis of language and musicality (see, in particular, Marler 2000; Gray et al. 2001; Hauser and McDermott 2003; Fitch 2005; Cross 2009; Hoeschele et al. 2015; Rohrmeier et al. 2015, 1; Spierings and ten Cate 2016, 345). Given the paucity of knowledge on animal cultures, I argue for birdsong research to embrace diverse approaches and insights.
However, philosopher Vinciane Despret (2022, 20) reminds us that "human exceptionalism keeps a careful watch over ...separations of register." While the natural sciences regularly turn to animals to develop a theory or argument, disciplines that have been theorised on the assumption of human uniqueness typically set up obstacles to any inclusion of animals, and musicology is very much included here. This article urges humanities scholars to take part in conversations regarding the parallels in complexity and structure among language, human music, and animal song in order to widen our scope. Accordingly, although I study and celebrate birdsong as music, my collaborations with linguists are central to the parsing of combinatorial complexity in the hours-long songs of the pied butcherbird. The stories we tell and believe — about meaning, music, and language, and about cognition and consciousness — these stories can diminish or amplify the perceived gap between animals and humans.
The author thanks the peer reviewers and guest editors for their valuable comments.
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- My interest here is not in pitting one human field of analysis against another, but rather to find the most efficacious methods to describe and celebrate avian achievements that illuminate our continuity and kinship with these choristers. As Taylor (2017, 270) observes, "The view that only humans make music expresses a wider proposition: that only humans dwell in worlds of meaning, that only humans act mindfully, and that only humans have and thrive by means of culture." Methods of assessment that allow us to place humans and birds in opposition or to dismiss the musicality of songbirds ignores more engaging and pressing modes of interpretation. ↩