Educating Through Birdsong: a fun taster of how studying music can help you think creatively

image of a bird singing

Picture yourself walking through the park on a warm summer’s afternoon. You hear the sound of a nightingale – Fran – chirping a beautiful song up high in the trees. Musicians are weird and wonderful people, and one of the things that makes us stand out is that when hearing Fran sing we look beyond the typical labelling of the sound as just chirping and ask ourselves: is this music?

Fran’s singing certainly has melodic features, using different pitches (relating to how ‘high’ or ‘low’ the sound is) in a particular order to help form a distinct sound. It also has rhythmic features, because we hear these pitches being placed into a particular order in time. Their rhythm may not be as simple as clapping your hands to the beat of a popular song, but they still arrange sounds into an order in time which makes it rhythmic in essence. In fact, Fran’s singing seemingly uses the same rhythmic and melodic principles which can be seen in far more obvious examples of music. Take, for example, the Happy Birthday song. Like Fran’s singing, there are a variety of different pitches which are arranged in a particular order as the notes of the melody are sung from low to high. Moreover, in both examples these notes have a distinct arrangement in time which means they both have rhythmic features. Though the Happy Birthday song may have a far simpler rhythm which is generally easier to tap along to, Fran still sings her notes in a particular order in time which means that it is fundamentally rhythmic (albeit more complex). This means that birdsong is built on the same sonic principles of melody and rhythm as the Happy Birthday song, while the arrangement of sound within these principles differ greatly. As such, there is a strong argument to suggest that Fran’s singing should be understood as music.

Some might point out that the Happy Birthday song has intentionally been composed as a piece of music which is sung (usually not very well!) by family and friends at a birthday, whilst birdsong is random. It is unlikely, for example, that Fran would be able to hear the same song as her other bird friend, Shay, and sing it back. However, it is completely accepted that jazz improvisation counts as music because even though the music created on the spot by a jazz improviser has not been heard before nor will it be played again by another person, the sound itself still has melodic and rhythmic features which means that it counts as music. There are, however, a few other differences between Fran’s singing and a jazz improviser. First, jazz musicians are human, and some scholars believe that only a human mind has the capabilities to arrange sound in a sophisticated enough way to create music. Second, the jazz improviser intends to make music, whilst Fran is simply making sounds with no idea that us music nerds are listening to it and discussing whether or not it counts as music.

It is my personal opinion that music is music regardless of its origin. When we think of music we think of organised sound, dictated by principles such as melody and rhythm. It should not matter whether the organised sound came from a human or a bird, or if it is intended or not. The proof is in the pudding, and birdsong exhibits the same melodic and rhythmic principles as more typical forms of music and therefore should be understood as such.

This is just one example of how studying music teaches you to think about the world in interesting and creative ways. If you would like to find out more about music and how studying it in school curriculums and beyond can enhance the meaning of your life then please do get in touch with Newman Tuition.

Henry is an English, History, Religious Studies and Music tutor with Newman Tuition. To book a lesson with him, or one of our other excellent tutors, please call us on 020 3198 8006, email us at [email protected], or complete the form on the ‘Contact Us’ page.

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