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New Study Proves That Birds Are Like Human Musicians

Songbirds are not much different from human musicians, says a new study that has brought together biologists, neuroscientists, musicians, and engineers. The paper is published in Royal Society Open Science.

The pied butcherbird. Photo credits: New Jersey Institute of Technology.

The pied butcherbird. Photo credits: New Jersey Institute of Technology.

We all know that birds can be specially melodious, nature’s very own singers. Well, this is actually a scientifically accurate statement, according to a new paper written by an international team of researchers from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, New York’s City University (CUNY), the Freie Universität Berlin, and Australian Macquarie University. Their findings come as a surprise because the world of science would often dismiss claims of bird songs being based on musical principles as uninformed opinions.

The research focused on the Australian pied butcherbird, known to be very musical. Its songs are also said to be very similar to human music, explains one of the authors, violinist and biomusicologist Hollis Taylor, from Macquarie University. The latter analysed data obtained from the bird over several years – a load of information to which CUNY researcher, Eathan Janney, contributed. Taylor says that this particular bird species could completely transform our very core values of music.

The study shows that a bird will be better at singing if its repertoire is more complex. Also, as opposed to other birds, it will interact with its counterparts with greater skill.

Wanna hear the butcherbird in action?! Watch the video below for a solo song performance; another butcherbird and an Australian magpie also feature therein.

One of the authors describes the birds as being able to “balance their performance to keep it in a sweet spot between boredom and confusion”. The birds can shift from one tune to another to provide for both repetition and variation – a trait comparablae to jazz musicians, says co-author Constance Scharff from Freie Universität Berlin.

What are the implications of this study? The researchers affirm that this could explain musical virtuosity as a way for birds to maintain dominance over territories and to catch mates. The findings could also be hinting at something more relevant to us, humans. Perhaps, birds indulging in music has been the foundation stone for the evolution of musical ability in humans.

These findings show that bird songs, music, and science are not absolutely disparate subjects.

“Science and music may have different criteria for truth, but sometimes their insights need to be put together to make sense of the beautiful performances we find in nature,” says co-author David Rothenberg, who is a philosophy and music professor at NJIT.

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