Zoömusicology: Music in the Animal Kingdom

The following post is an edited version of the second of four chapters from my honours thesis, originally written in 2013. The thesis as a whole acts as a kind of “how to” guide for composing in a few different styles, each of which somewhat removes human aspects of music composition, at the same time exploring ideas of musical universals – those aspects of music that seem to be ubiquitous across all cultures or even found to be in common across different species! This chapter is all about creating music that is based on birdcalls, and the technique could be altered for any natural (or non-natural) tuneful sounds.


Chapter 2: Zoömusicology: Music in the Animal Kingdom


“To ask questions about a basic and omnipresent human activity is to implicitly ask questions about evolution” (Levitin, 2006, p. 7)

Zoömusicology is part of a framework within biomusicology, first described by Wallin (1991), which combines the fields of evolutionary musicology (dealing with the origins of music, animal sounds as music, and ‘selection pressures’ resulting in the music we hear today), neuromusicology (the brain areas and cognitive processes involved in music making and interpretation), and comparative musicology (looking at the functions and uses of musical systems, as well as universal traits; comparative musicology was the precursor to modern ethnomusicology). In this chapter, I have looked at bird song.

No sound in nature has attached itself so affectionately to the human imagination as bird vocalisations. In tests in many countries we have asked listeners to identify the most pleasant sounds of their environment; bird-song appears repeatedly at or near the top of the list. And the history of effective bird imitations in music extends from Clément Janequin to Olivier Messiaen. (Schafer, 1977, p. 29)

Mâche notes the similarity between human music and animal music,

There is not a single musical procedure which does not have its equivalent or its prototype in one or other of the innumerable signals of animals. The simplest, in animals as in man, is naturally repetition. (Mâche, 1983/1992, p. 115)

In the field of zoömusicology, the definition of music becomes an important part of any study undertaken. Most definitions of music as a human art form naturally note its aesthetic aspect. Indeed, Dario Martinelli defines zoömusicology as the “aesthetic use of sound communication among animals” (2005, p. 2). The idea of animal aesthetics is tied with evolution and natural selection, suggesting that animals exhibiting the most aesthetically attractive physical or musical traits are more likely to mate and produce offspring. Bird song must be seen, on the whole, as aesthetically pleasing to the birds that make it, or at least to their potential mates. This is closely linked to Wallin’s biomusicology (1991), and a direct product of Darwinian theory, which suggests that traits successful to a species’ survival – in this case, through successful mating – become more prevalent than others, due to their being passed on through generations, either genetically or from parent to child in the form of direct or indirect learning. This idea has been used with computer-generated music recently by MacCallum, et. al (2012) in The Evolution of Music by Public Choice, connected with the DarwinTunes project.

Roger Payne, in Among Whales (1995), uses the term “Musical Platonism”, wondering about an underlying framework upon which all various musics (including music produced by animals) are built, and which provides some structure to which all music adheres and represents. Payne was referring to musical universals, or perhaps the underlying cause that results in musical universals. As is true in many sciences, however, we are relegated to only observe the effects of a thing rather than the thing itself. Yet, musical universals remain an intriguing notion, as the discovery of universal aspects would begin to explain why music exists in the first place, its initial purpose, and its role in the evolution of the human mind. Matthew Head suggests that the musical mind of human beings could have been inspired by the musical nature of the physical environment, and in particular, birdsong (1997). Schafer (1977) also notes some similarity:

The distress notes of chicks are composed of descending frequencies only, while ascending frequencies predominate in pleasure calls. The same contours are present in man’s expressions of sadness and pleasure. (p. 31)

While this may be an oversimplification of the musical traditions, codification, and conventions associated with melodic contour, similar notions have been put forward throughout history: Athanasius Kircher in Musurgia Universalis and John Hawkins in A General History of the Science and Practice of Music.

Gray, et. al. (2001) share the idea that animals’ sounds could have had an impact on the developing musical mind of human beings, and note striking similarities between bird song, whale song and human musical tradition. As such, is it appropriate to use the same concepts in analysing both human and non-human animal music?

Martinelli (2005) aimed to prove that “theories conceived solely for human musical culture are not either in principle or in practice, inapplicable to non-human music” (p. 3), thereby opening up ethnomusicological theories and frameworks for use in zoömusicology. Martinelli advocates approaching “non-human animals” from the direction of human sciences, and music from the direction of biological sciences (p. 2). He suggests the use of an ethnomusicological tripartition of study: structures,  processes, and experience, referring to musical traits (such as melody, rhythm, etc.), para-musical traits (such as dance, gatherings, and other social counterparts of music-making), and personal interpretation and experience of those traits.

As in human music, analysing just the structural musical traits of animal communication with regards to musical universals is perhaps insufficient in generating complete results. In many human cultures, the strict music traits in the sound-world have intrinsic links to the para-musical, such as movement, dance, ritual, texts, and ensemble music-making (ibid.), however, it is difficult for any analyst to infer information from situations they are not intimately acquainted with, and in the case of understanding the finer points of animal sociology, perhaps impossible without limiting themselves to the study of a particular species alone. As such, it is outside of the scope of this study to look beyond musical structures.

Olivier Messiaen is well known for incorporating melodies transcribed from birdsong into compositions such as Chronochromie (sixth movement, Epode), Le merle noir, the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (third movement, Abîme des oiseaux), and the Catalogue d’oiseaux. In his compositions, Messiaen not only transcribed the calls of various birds, but further transformed these to fit with his own compositional voice (Priore, 2001). By using further techniques such as additive rhythms, rhythmic modes, and Messiaen’s own ‘modes of limited transposition’ (Messiaen, 1944). By using specific compositional techniques and imposing a particular set of rules, these works easily become a recognisable part of the composer’s oeuvre, something that perhaps would not happen as easily were they not governed by particular rules.

There are numerous examples of Australian composers drawing inspiration from birdsong in a similar way to Messiaen, as outlined in Taylor’s (2011) survey, which specifically looks at the appropriation of Pied Butcherbird song in musical compositions. Not only is Australian birdsong considered to be an untapped and overlooked resource for composers (ibid.: 4), but Melbourne composer Henry Tate notes that “our bird calls are not estranged from the psychology of the modern Australian” (1924, p. 27), suggesting that Australian composers, without tradition to “cramp them with set formulae” (Tate, 1917, unpaginated), are perhaps able to exploit the familiarity of bird calls in their works, creating something as uniquely and recognisably Australian as the fauna by which it was inspired.


Composing music based on bird song

To create a feeling of a naturally evolving scene, I opted for a semi-aleatoric compositional technique, transcribing and notating a number of bird songs from recordings, and creating an improvisational musical structure in which the individual melodies are to be performed. This was inspired by the performance method of Terry Riley’s minimalist piece In C, in which a series of short melodies or melodic fragments are played as desired by an unspecified ensemble, and of which a standard performance lasts around 45 minutes (Riley, 1989).

In transcribing bird calls for the piece, I first attempted to transcribe recordings by ear at a piano, forgoing interpretations of microtonal intervals, unless I deemed them highly important to the particular call (the bell miner’s shifts in interval, although small, are particularly noticeable because there is very little variation elsewhere). Following the initial transcription, I created spectrograms of the relevant parts of each recording, analysing the tonal qualities and the timbre of each species. Using a pitch-tracking software plugin, I looked at the calls for intricacies that I might have missed in the initial transcriptions. I found that often, the implied pitches, transcribed more easily by ear than by computer analysis, were more useful in musically appropriating the calls on an instrument than transcribing the “exact” pitches in rapid melodic lines using computer analysis.

You are right to trust first you ear, then measurements. For complex sounds, like most of those of birds, our ear generally defines a subjective pitch that sonograms do not reveal, particularly when there are portamentos. An exact transcription is of no use to a musician, and a subjective transcription of no use to a biologist. (François-Bernard Mâche, quoted in Taylor, 2011, p. 16)

I have chosen to use a combination of standard notation and graphic notation for Les oiseaux Australiens, the former to notate each bird call as it is to be played, and the latter to suggest a structure for the performance of each call within an ensemble, stating where each performer should increase or decrease in intensity, or to start and stop playing.

In Les oiseaux Australiens, Each performer is allocated a melody from those notated and plays it according to the performance directions. Melodies are notated with rests to allow each to be repeated without becoming melodically overpowering, however the graphic score, directing the intensity of each melody may influence performers to repeat the melodies with more or less space between them, as well as informing tempo changes, volume, and transposition.

Choosing to compose in this manner, as opposed to the often rigorous notation of contemporary classical music, encourages a much more egalitarian approach to performance and the ensemble itself, and in this piece, helps to establish the intended style of the performance.


Notation of bird song

For my purposes as a composer, a combination of both standard notation and graphic notation was used to achieve the desired effect for a performance. However, many zoömusicologists prefer the use of sound spectrograms, as these provide a visual representation of the exact sound, rather than an aural interpretation. This is, however, less useful to composers wanting to incorporate bird song into music.

Figure 2.1 shows a sound spectrogram of the call of a Golden Whistler bird in Northern NSW:

fig. 2.1 - golden whistler spectrogram

Fig. 2.1: Golden Whistler sound spectrogram


The vertical axis shows sound frequency and the horizontal axis shows time, and it is easy to see that the call of this particular bird starts with a repeated downward interval in discrete pitches followed by an upward interval which slides between pitches. Spectrograms are also useful as a representation of timbre (each of the fainter lines above the fundamental frequencies represents a harmonic of that frequency), however, in terms of a musical representation of the call, it is very difficult to tell which pitches these actually are.

Figure 2.2 shows the same call, but in standard musical notation:

fig. 2.2 - golden whistler transcription

Fig. 2.2: Golden Whistler musical transcription


This is much more useful to a musician or composer, but loses information that might be more relevant to a zoömusicologist. While the notes and phrasing have been transcribed, timbre is left unnotated. Barlines and implied pulse are imparted by the transcriber, and while these are useful to musicians seeking to replicate the bird call, they may not be as relevant from a biological standpoint.


Score & Audio

02a Les oiseaux Australiens - Standard Notation-102a Les oiseaux Australiens - Standard Notation-2

02a Les oiseaux Australiens - Standard Notation-3








02b Les oiseaux Australiens - Graphic Score




Chapter references:

Gray, P. M., Krause, B., Atema, J., Payne, R. Krumhansl, C., Baptista, L. (2001). The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music. Science, 291(5501), pp. 52-54.

Head, M. (1997). Birdsong and the Origins of Music. Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 122(1), pp. 1-23.

Levitin, D. (2006). This Is Your Brain On Music: Understanding a Human Obsession. Atlantic Books, London.

MacCallum, R., Mauch, M., Burt, A., and Leroi, A. M., (2012). Evolution of music by public choice. In PNAS, 109(30), 12081-12086.

Mâche, F.-B. (1983, 1992). Music, Myth and Nature, or The Dolphins of Arion (Musique, mythe, nature, ou les Dauphins d’Arion), Routlegde, London.

Martinelli, D. (2005). A whale of a sonata – Zoomusicology and the question of musical structures. SEED, 5, pp. 2-29.

Payne, R. (1995). Among Whales. Scribner, New York.

Priore, I. (2001). The Compositional Techniques of Messiaen’s Le Merle Noir. Flute Talk Magazine, 20(8), pp. 11-13.

Riley, T. (1964, 1989). In C (Performing Directions). Celestial Harmonies.

Schafer, R. M. (1977). The Tuning of the World. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York.

Tate, H. (1917). Australian Musical Resources, Some Suggestions. Sydney J. Endacott, Melbourne.

Tate, H. (1924). Australian Musical Possibilities. Edward A. Vidler, Melbourne.

Taylor, H. (2011). Composers’ appropriation of pied butcherbird song: Henry Tate’s ‘undersong of Australia’ comes of age. Journal of Music Research Online, 2(1). Available: http://www.jmro.org.au/index.php/mca2/article/view/43 [Accessed 14/09/2012].

Wallin, N. L. (1991). Biomusicology: Neurophysiological, Neuropsychological and Evolutionary Perspectives on the Origins and Purposes of Music, Pendragon Press, New York.

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