The Melodies of Birds Shows Music's Great Influence on People's Psyche

Cape Times (South Africa), September 14, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Melodies of Birds Shows Music's Great Influence on People's Psyche


She is known in the bird kingdom for being a brood parasite, laying her eggs in nests prepared by other birds.

There are some human beings who behave similarly, "nesting free-riders" one could call them, from which the English word "cuckold" partly derives.

"O tell her, Swallow" the English poet Alfred Tennyson once wrote about another interesting bird, "that thy brood is flown; Say to her, I do but wanton in the South, But in the North long since my nest is made." (The Princess, 1847)

My interest in Cuculus solitarius is her magnificent onomatopoeic melody Piet-my-vrou, Afrikaans for "Pete-my-wife", a phrase by which this bird has become known.

Her English name is red-chested cuckoo and in Zulu she is uPhezukomkhono.

I use melody rather than song deliberately.

We do not know what birds intend. Perhaps they intend nothing at all. Survival in the orthinological world is a very tough business. Demographers of human populations usually use bird mortality statistics (more than half of them die within their first month of life) to illustrate what are called "natural checks" on population growth - and those checks, particularly miserable food supplies, are, for birds, daunting.

In any event, we cannot immerse ourselves in their brains, which is where intention lies. They have a small neocortex, which is where our planning abilities partly lie.

We do not know what they hear.

What we with our auditory apparatus hear is a beautiful melody and we happen to describe it by how it sounds in one of our 11 languages. The melody of one class of species is described in the language of another.

Some musicians immerse themselves in sources of naturally produced melodies - an area of expertise where birds, of course, reign supreme - as inspiration, "the rhythms and structure of the songs as musical material" as David Rothenberg puts it in his book Why Birds Sing (London, Penguin).

Beethoven might have dismissed bird songs as trivial distractions, but many musicians and composers return to these as sources of natural melodies, overwhelmed as we are today by the noise and drone of occasional beauty of digitally- and electronically-produced sounds.

Why do birds sing? Rothenberg replies: "For the same reason we sing - because we can. …

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