Ian Rose at JSTOR Daily: To some extent, we all know music when we hear it: a melody, a rhythm, a progression of individual notes that, taken together, elevates the whole into the realm of auditory art. Like any art form, we define it partly by the method of its construction—a painting is painted, a song sung—and also by its effect on us. If something sounds like music, it is. But what about songs sung by non-humans? Is birdsong music?
The question isn’t new. As far back as Aristotle, philosophers, scientists, and musicologists have argued over the musicality of the avian world. Medieval writers often dismissed birdsong as “vox inarticulata,” a category of sounds that may be enjoyable but lack meaning or intention. Meaning and intention were, to them, the exclusive domain of humanity and God. St. Augustine agreed, claiming that birds lacked the rationality necessary for true creation. When birds were associated with a “true” voice in European art and literature, it was often as the voices of angels, themselves depicted with the feathered wings of birds.
One hundred years ago, in 1922, the American musician and scholar W. B. Olds contributed to this debate with “Bird-Music,” an essay whose very title itself demonstrates his position. Olds makes the case that not only is birdsong music, but it’s uniquely beautiful and powerful. To him, each species of bird is a star in its own right, and he gives special mention to a few common birds; the field sparrow’s song is “a perfect accelerando,” while the song of the white-throated sparrow compels him to ask, “Where is there to be heard a finer legato or more definite rhythm?” Above all, Olds seems most inspired by the tiny ruby-crowned kinglet: “It seems scarcely believable that such a cascade of sparkling tones, extremely high in pitch but wonderfully clear, could proceed from so small a throat. The musician who has not heard it has something to live for.” More here.
Birds are Nature’s Greatest Dancers: