Music in the natural world

Our dawn chorus, though usually initiated by a resident cock pheasant, Philip, squawking for food, has been dominated recently by a blackbird, probably brain-damaged. The blackbird is one of Britain’s most inventively melodic birds (check out this YouTube clip). But this one has become obsessed with a simple diatonic motif, in Bb, which it will usually repeat back-to back before breaking up into half-hearted warbles. Here is my transcription:

Mistle ThrushYou’ll see it’s basically one bar in swung time, starting on the tonic with a perfect cadence and a couple of passing notes. Even this simple dance pattern, though, has a grace note on the final tone, and a consistently early restart which I’ve represented in 5/8. Pretty nifty for a psychotic bird, huh?

It set me thinking about how complex, by contrast, most birdsong is. Can you set aside a few moments to listen to some YouTube clips? It’ll lift your soul if you can! Apart from exceptions like cuckoos, notating most birdsong is impossible. This is partly because we are very slow in our perception of it, as various studies have shown by slowing it down. Listen, for example, to this haunting clip of a (sane) blackbird slowed down. Even at that speed, the sophistication is astonishing. It sounds like whale-song which, of course, in turn sounds remarkably songbird-like when speeded up.

Whole records have been produced exploring this – dip into this clip (ignoring both the chick in the advert, if it plays, who is in fact a human, and the Hungarian commentary, which is human too). Listen out for some of the musical “things” going on in the various birdsongs. There are microtones rather than simple scales, glissandi, crescendos, far from simple rhythmic structures, tonal variations, and so on. One of the most interesting effects depends on the fact that birds have two sound sources, and can produce harmonic modulation – notes with various overtones superimposed. Neat.

Now most of these things have been used in human music at various times in various places, but the universality of music, which is very real, depends on its relationship to basic physics and to physiology. To get a feel for that universal language, watch and listen to this clip of my all-time favourite band, which actually starts with Tuval throat-singer Kongar-Ol Ondar, showing that humans with just one set of vocal cords can do harmonic modulation too. But note also the easy interplay with western musicians from jazz, classical and funk, and the conversation between tabla player Zakir Hussain and Victor Wooten, one of the world’s greatest bass-players (who can also miraculously play whilst leaning at a 45 degree angle):

Virtuosi apart, though, music is international because its physics is simple. Common time derives from the rhythms of heartbeat and walking – the ubiquitous (and tedious) 120bpm of disco music represents the rate of the heart in activity. Swung time (basically triple time) follows what happens to our bodies when we dance.

Melody and harmony are based on the physics of overtones – doh and soh are the strongest harmonics in most notes, providing the stable base of the bagpipe chanter, for example, with fah almost as solid-sounding – with those notes you have the basis of your three-chord trick. The octave is similarly fundamental. Other notes are buried deeper in the harmonics, and when used add interest, but they also add movement as they are off the stable chords and make the ear want them to resolve back to these simple universals. The commoner the notes in the harmonics, the more commonly used in music – the 5-note (pentatonic) scale is pretty universal from Chinese music to rock guitar solos.

And so it is that you could probably get by as a musician anywhere in the world – even if you were depised as a primitive – by playing pentatonic music in common time and a three-chord structure. The physics behind it is universal.

Which makes it odd that these musical (actually¬†sonic) basics are so much ignored by birds and whales alike in their songs. They are sonically so complex and sophisticated that it’s almost surprising that they are always recognised as “natural music”. More than that, these sounds, together with other natural sources like the wind and the waves, are the commonest source of both musical inspiration and human contentment.

When the UK music station Classic FM started, before it had prepared actual programmes, it broadcast the dawn chorus continuously – and when it stopped, there were cries of disappointment from the public. Music is a soothing or an exciting art, but as I’ve shown it’s basically simple physics and physiology intelligently harnessed. We don’t find random sounds particularly attractive, John Cage notwithstanding. But natural music, especially birdsong, seems to ignore these musical basics, though you’d expect them to be the most obvious things to be utilised in animal signalling and dispay.

Instead natural music is complex, sophisticated and immensely satisfying to the human soul. You don’t suppose it could have been designed, do you?

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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