32. Birds and Music

The descriptions of singing birds found in early literature are by far the most frequently mentioned animal with respect to music. The range of birds and their music is, taken together, quite extraordinary. We might begin with a survey by Albertus Magnus, in his De animalibus.1

As a general rule, birds emit more vocal sounds than other animals, a manifestation of the levity of their spirits. This is particularly true of the smaller birds, many of whom sing a musical song and display a lightness of spirit reflected in the ease of their melodious outpourings. Birds sing most vocally during the mating season when the males warble in a more tuneful fashion than the females whose natural disposition is colder and more aloof.

Among the most melodious of the birds he finds Finches,2 Birds of Paradise3 and above all, the Blackbird.4

In the opinion of some writers, the Blackbird was called “modula” in ancient times, because it produces melodies [modulos] and songs [melos]. Some claim a black bird was once trained by human art to reproduce all nine notes of the scale that are used in the composition of every musical piece; moreover, the trained bird gloried so in its talent that it would often sing through its range of notes in melodious sequence for a human audience … This bird sings well in the springtime but during the winter makes a stuttering sound.

Albertus’ most extended, and interesting, discussion of a musical bird is devoted to that virtuoso, the Nightingale.5

PHYLOMENA (Nightingale) is a small, well-known bird, named from “phylos” and “menos,” which means sweet, because it loves sweet songs. Another possible derivation is from “philos” and “mene,” because in competing with another bird to produce the best song, the nightingale would rather run out of breath and expire than cease singing and give in to its opponent.

Though small in body, the nightingale has a great store of breath wherewith it produces a range of sounds no less remarkable for its modulated tones as for the multiplicity of its notes. One minute it sustains a long note with one continuous breath, and then it varies the tone like the inflections of a human singing voice. Again, it separates the notes with staccato effect, all the while maintaining a connected melody, so that the song on its outgoing breath is continued with matching force on inhalation. At varying times its song is full basso profundo; treble; prolonged in a trill; soprano; or reduced to a whisper—in essence, representing almost all of the tunes made by musical instruments.

There is an attractive passage in Chaucer’s The Books of the Duchess,6 in which he speaks of birds singing, some low and some high, with sweetness, in tune, with “so merry a harmony, so sweet strains” and observes nowhere was ever heard instrument or melody yet half so sweet or of half so well in accord. When he also mentions that none merely pretended to sing, but all did not spare their voices, not to mention the reference to “the most solemn service,” we are inclined to wonder if this passage were intended to reflect, not really a description of birds, but a representation of the best choral singing Chaucer had heard.

With smale foules a gret hep
That had affrayed me out of my slep,
Thorgh noyse and swetness of her song.
And, as me mette, they sate among
Upon my chambre roof wythoute,
Upon the tyles, overal aboute,
And songen, everch in hys wyse,
The moste solemne servise
By noote, that ever man, y trowe,
Had herd; for some of hem songlowe,
Som high, and al of oon acord.
To telle shortly, att oo word.
Was never herd so swete a steven,—
But hyt had be a thyng of heven,—
So mery a soun, so swete entewnes,
That certes, for the toun of Tewnes,
I nolde but I had herd hem synge;
For al my chambre gan to rynge
Thurgh syngynge of her armonye.
For instrument nor melodye
Was nowhere herd yet half so swete,
Nor of acorde half so mete;
For ther was noon of hem that feyned
To synge, for ech of hem hym peyned
To fynde out mery crafty notes.
They ne spared not her throtes.

And, speaking of the sweet voices of birds, an eighth-century English poem called The Phoenix praises an imaginary bird whose voice is sweeter than any musical instrument, including the human voice.7

The music of its voice is sweeter and more beauteous than any craft of song, winsomer than any melody; nor trumpets, nor horns, may equal that sound, nor strain of harp, nor the voice of man, of any man on earth, nor organ’s tone, nor harmonious lay, nor feather of swan, nor any of the sounds that the Lord hath created for men’s delight in this sad world.

The last line, “to create delight in this sad world,” reminds one of a similar thought, “to rise above my cares,” in a play8 by the seventeenth-century Spanish playwright, Molina,

Little songbirds, innocent flatterers, untaught musicians, idlers among reed-beds and wild thyme, cheer my sad spirits with your melodies;
with your gentle voices help me rise above my cares.

Now we move to the subject of the use of animals to illustrate specific aspects of man and music, beginning with descriptions of the contemplative listener. First, we have a vivid description of a listener in a fourteenth-century poem by Machaut, listening to birds with as much quiet contemplation as if they were human singers.

I dropped gently to the ground and hid myself as best I could beneath the trees, so it could not see me there, to listen to the very sweet melody of its delightful song. And I took more pleasure in listening to its sweet singing that ever I could tell.9

In another place, Machaut uses a story about birds to make the point that the required attention necessary to the contemplative listener is impossible if one is independently under emotional stress.

And in more than thirty thousand places the birds, wide-throated, were trying to out-sing one another, as if it were a contest, making the whole orchard ring; and it’s no lie that prior to Hope’s visiting me in my need, my senses had been so distorted that I’d not noticed the birds or their music, or how merry they all were. But this should not be held against me, because there are two things that falsify the senses and cause them to react irrationally: these are great joy and great sadness.10

There were some in earlier times who understood that music had important values in and of itself. This, of course, is what lies behind all accounts of the contemplative listener and particularly so in those cases where a crowd of people suddenly fall silent when a musician begins to perform. There is a fine description of such a moment when birds stop their singing to listen to the famous fourteenth century blind composer and keyboard performer, Francesco Landini.

Now the sun rose higher and the heat of the day increased and the whole company remained in the pleasant shade; and as a thousand birds were singing among the verdant branches, someone asked Francesco to play the organ a little, to see whether the sound would make the birds increase or diminish their song. He did so at once, and a great wonder followed: for when the sound began many of the birds were seen to fall silent, and gather around as if in amazement, listening for a long time.11

The sixteenth century was a period of great advances in technology of all kinds, including many mechanical devices with musical associations. The water powered construction mentioned in Sidney’s The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia12 we take to be a tribute to the singing of real birds.

There were birds also made so finely, that they did not only deceive the sight with their figures, but the hearing with their songs; which the water instruments did make their gorge deliver.

In George Peele’s play, The Arraignment of Paris,13 there is a complex mechanical device called for which makes bird sounds. The cast includes a large number of Greek gods and the nine Muses and near the beginning of the play there occurs an extraordinary performance for double choir, a choir of gods on stage and the Muses off-stage. The stage direction describes their music as an echo to the song of birds heard shortly before and indicated by another stage direction, “An artificial charm of birds being heard within.”

There are some interesting references in early literature to music education among the birds. Some, such as St Ambrose, say that some birds learn to sing by nature and others by training.14

Most writers, however, are concerned with the subject of birds teaching other birds to sing. We find a remarkable first-century account by Pliny the Elder on the singing of Nightingales and of their education of their young.15

Nightingales pour out a ceaseless gush of song for fifteen days and nights on end when the buds of the leaves are swelling—a bird not in the lowest rank remarkable. In the first place there is so loud a voice and so persistent a supply of breath in such a tiny little body; then there is the consummate knowledge of music in a single bird: the sound is given out with modulations, and now is drawn out into a long note with one continuous breath, now varied by managing the breath, now made staccato by checking it, or linked together by prolonging it, or carried on by holding it back; or it is suddenly lowered, and at times sinks into a mere murmur, loud, low, bass, treble, with trills, with long notes, modulated when this seems good—soprano, mezzo, baritone; and briefly all the devices in that tiny throat which human science has devised with all the elaborate mechanism of the aulos … And that no one may doubt its being a matter of science, the birds have several songs each, and not all the same but every bird songs of its own. They compete with one another, and there is clearly an animated rivalry between them; the loser often ends her life by dying, her breath giving out before her song. Other younger birds practice their music, and are given verses to imitate; the pupil listens with close attention and repeats the phrase, and the two keep silence by turns: we notice improvement in the one under instruction and a sort of criticism on the part of the instructress … Frequent cases have been seen before now of nightingales that have begun to sing when ordered, and have sung in answer to an organ, as there have been found persons who could reproduce the birds’ song with an indistinguishable resemblance by putting water into slanting reeds and breathing into the holes, or by applying some slight check with the tongue. But these exceptional and artistic trills after a fortnight gradually cease, though not in such a way that the birds could be said to be tired out or to have had enough singing; and later on when the heat has increased their note becomes entirely different, with no modulations or variations.

Montaigne agrees that if we observe carefully, we can see this educational process taking place,

Even nightingales born free do not all sing one and the same song: each one sings according to its capacity to learn. They make jealous classmates, squabbling and vying with each other so heartily that the vanquished sometimes drops down dead, not from lack of song but lack of breath. The youngest birds ruminate thoughtfully and then begin to imitate snatches of song; the pupils listen to the lessons of their tutors and then give an account of themselves, taking it in turns to stop their singing. You can hear their faults being corrected; some of the criticism of their tutors are perceptible even to us.16

With regard to Montaigne’s reference to the birds “vying with each other,” we recall that the sixteenth-century Italian, Giustiniani, also mentions that in the case of birds, “they almost seem to compete among themselves to reach a greater perfection and to teach such skill to their young.”17

Finally, some birds are widely known for their ability to imitate. Albertus, in the thirteenth century, gives such an observation regarding nightingales.

In my own observations of this bird I have remarked that it flies toward persons who are singing, provided they have a melodious voice; as long as these persons continue singing, the bird listens in silence; but as soon as they stop, the nightingale takes up the song, as if responding in a roundelay chorus. Furthermore, these birds duplicate the same process in response to one another, provoking each other to song.18

We conclude these thoughts with a most remarkable story told by Montaigne, who gives Plutarch as his source.

But strange indeed is the account of a female magpie vouched for by Plutarch, no less. It lived in a barber’s shop in Rome and was wonderfully clever at imitating any sounds it heard. It happened one day that some musicians stopped quite a while in front of the shop, blasting away on their trumpets. Immediately the magpie fell pensive, mute and melancholic, remaining so all the following day. Everyone marveled, thinking that the blare of the trumpets had frightened and confused it, making it lose both hearing and song at the same time. But they eventually found that it had been deeply meditating and had withdrawn into itself; it had been inwardly practicing, preparing its voice to imitate the noise of those trumpeters. The first sound it did make was a perfect imitation of the trumpets! After this new apprenticeship the bird quit with disdain all that it was able to do before.19


  1. trans. Scanlan, 190 ↩︎
  2. Ibid., 219 ↩︎
  3. Ibid., 207 ↩︎
  4. Ibid., 305 ↩︎
  5. Ibid., 315 ↩︎
  6. 295ff ↩︎
  7. The Exter Book, Oxford University Press, 131ff ↩︎
  8. Damned for Despair, III, iii ↩︎
  9. Le Jugemesn du roy de Behaigne, trans. Wimsatt and Kibler, 60 ↩︎
  10. Remede de Fortune, in Ibid., 334 ↩︎
  11. Giovanni da Prato, Paradiso degli Alberi, 1389 ↩︎
  12. ed. Feujillerat, Book I, xiv ↩︎
  13. Act I, scene 1 ↩︎
  14. Six Days of Creation: Five, in Hexameron, Paradise, Cain and Abel, trans., Savage, 200 ↩︎
  15. Natural History, X, xliiiff ↩︎
  16. Essays, II, xii, 519ff ↩︎
  17. Discorso sopra la Musica, 75ff ↩︎
  18. De animalibus, 315 ↩︎
  19. Essays, 519ff ↩︎