• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Birds and Beethoven

Air Date: Week of

Lauren Gravitz profiles Luis Baptista, the world-renowned ornithologist who died last month. With plenty of evidence from both the human and avian worlds, Dr. Baptista illustrates his theory that birds and people create music in a similar fashion.


TOOMEY: When Dr. Luis Baptista died last month at 58, the world of ornithology lost a prolific and enthusiastic leader. Dr. Baptista worked at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and devoted his life to the study of bird dialects and vocalizations. He could identify the call of any bird in Golden Gate Park, as well as imitate the dialects of birds from around the world. Dr. Baptista's pioneering work was in bioacoustics, the study of vocal communication in animals. But he was also a great lover of classical music, and it wasn't long before he began to find incredible similarities between the two. Lauren Gravitz has this appreciation of a remarkable man and his unusual work.

GRAVITZ: Luis Baptista was a child when he started going to the Chinese tea houses of Macau. There, on the top floor, he would sit and listen to the birds sing. During the week, he attended Catholic school where he often memorized and sang passages from liturgies. So it was not surprising when he began to listen closely to the music of birds. Shortly before he died, I spoke with Dr. Baptista about the connection between music and bird song. He said there are many places where the two converge. For example, in the song of the Socorro mockingbird. The birds live in a rainforest on a small Pacific island, and they sing in canons, musical passages that use strict imitation. When one Socorro mockingbird sings a phrase, another bird repeats it. According to Dr. Baptista, this could go on for hours.

(Bird song)

BAPTISTA: That's one bird. Can you hear the other one answering? The exact same theme.

(Bird song)

GRAVITZ: But mockingbirds are only the beginning. When he was a graduate student in Germany, Dr. Baptista often heard blackbirds whistling familiar tunes.

BAPTISTA: I remember I was walking with a lady through the forest, and we both heard the blackbird go (whistles). You recognize that? That's from a calypso. It was right in the middle of a German forest, way in the middle of nowhere, and this bird comes out with a calypso.

GRAVITZ: There's more. In the rainforest of Chiapas, Mexico, he heard the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony coming from a white-breasted wood wren.

(Wood wren sings, followed by the opening bars of Beethoven's Fifth)

GRAVITZ: But Beethoven's home in Vienna was thousands of miles away from Chiapas, and the German forest quite a distance from where Harry Belafonte wrote his calypso songs. So how did Dr. Baptista explain these similarities?

BAPTISTA: If you have two creatures, let's say in this case birds and humans, that compose music in the diatonic scale, which is the scale of Western music, there are only so many notes in the scale. So after a while you have to converge. And in fact, if you listen to works of the great composers, you always hear snippets that remind you of another composer's work. It could be a very short phrase of three or four, five notes, and that's exactly what the birds have been doing. It's three, four, five notes that remind us of familiar pieces in Western music.

(Beethoven continues)

GRAVITZ: Another similarity, however, may not be explained quite so easily. Some of the birds Luis Baptista studied sing in sonata form. Sonatas, like the kind Beethoven was known for, have an A-B-A arrangement. In other words, they consist of three parts: a melody or theme, a variation on the theme, and then an echo of the original melody. But again, the question becomes how? How is it that birds and humans do the same thing?

BAPTISTA: Birds sing songs, and they put variations in the song. And the reasons for putting variations in a song, of course, is because birds, like humans, habituate. They get bored with monotony. And therefore you have to keep the interest of your listener, in this case the female I suppose, by continually introducing novel things, novelty. But the psychologists tells us that you can't continue putting in novelty, because after a while the brain goes into some kind of fatigue. So you have to come back to an original reference point, an original theme, to prevent this psychological fatigue of sustained effort.

GRAVITZ: So, neurologically speaking, birds and humans need the same thing in their music: variation and repetition. Dr. Irene Pepperberg is a specialist in avian cognition and a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She says the parallels between human song and bird song don't surprise her.

PEPPERBERG: When we look in terms of responses to tonal patterns, and responses to the way tonal patterns are used, we see striking parallels, from everything in birds to their territorial defense, mate attraction, to the way humans use war songs and love songs and things like that. Is it a definite brain structure that carries across? Probably not. But it's the idea of this almost limbic response that we have suggests that there are basic areas in the brain that respond to these things.

TRAMO: At a first pass, obviously, our brains are so different from bird brains that trying to understand the brain mechanisms in birds and make analogies to humans seems almost impossible

GRAVITZ: Dr. Mark Tramo is an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and a professional musician.

TRAMO: But in fact, when one looks at the particular brain structures that are involved in vocal communication, one can begin to draw important analogies.

GRAVITZ: One of the examples Dr. Tramo points to is how hearing something can lead to the ability to produce that sound. Understanding this in a bird's brain can help researchers understand it in the human brain. But Dr. Baptista had hoped to do even more with his bird song research. By exposing others to the bird song in music, he wanted to give them a deeper appreciation for the birds he loved. And by doing so, help save them. One species he pointed to was the endangered European quail, a bird he grew to know while living in Germany.

BAPTISTA: In the village where I lived, that was called Merginhan, there were quail right there in a little meadow right next door. Every evening as I walked home from my office, on the top of a hill, through this meadow, I would hear the quail giving the dick-ta-dick.

(Quail call)

GRAVITZ: This dick-ta-dick of the quail makes an appearance in the second movement of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony.

(A flute enters)

GRAVITZ: The movement ends with a distinct trio of instruments: a flute, an oboe, and a clarinet. The flute imitates the song of a bird called a yellowhammer. The clarinet is a cuckoo. And the oboe plays three notes, all in one tone, that dick-ta-dick of a quail.

(Passage from Beethoven's Sixth and quail call)

GRAVITZ: Earlier this year, Dr. Baptista and some of his colleagues gathered in Washington as part of the BIOMUSIC symposium. Their goal: to examine the nature of music and the place of music in nature. The group of scientists and musicians hopes to teach people about endangered birds, and the music the birds inspired, in order to raise awareness of environmental issues.

BAPTISTA: It's easy to get kids interested in music. Music is the easiest thing. But if you could combine an interest of music and going out into nature, seeing where some of the motifs of this music is derived, then this could be a tool to create awareness of the environment, and therefore a tool to promote a program to save what's left of our environment.

GRAVITZ: Before he died, Luis Baptista was heavily involved in conservation efforts. He was working with other scientists and the Mexican government to reintroduce a species of dove back to Socorro Island, where the wild population had been driven to extinction. He leaves in his wake many colleagues who are prepared to continue where he left off.

(Bird song and Beethoven's Fifth)

GRAVITZ: For Living on Earth, I'm Lauren Gravitz.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth