Dr. Emily Doolittle on the Music of Birds

This researcher studies the musician wren's sweet song.

As a composer and zoomusicologist, Emily Doolittle combines two loves by studying the links between human and animal music at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. In October she and biologists at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, published an analysis of the musician wren—whose song sounds eerily human—in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Music Studies. We caught up with her by phone at her home in Seattle.

How did you first become interested in birdsong?

I moved to the Netherlands in 1997. One night I heard this amazing bird singing outside my window. It was also raining, so there was a beautiful backdrop of rain and wind sounds. Many of the segments of the bird’s song sounded a lot like human music—like scalar passages or arpeggios—but the way it strung them together sounded very unlike human music, at least music in the Western Classical tradition. I later found out that it was a European blackbird, so I decided to write a piece of music based on its song.

Your most recent paper is on the musician wren. What makes them so special?

Across cultures, people find the musician wren’s song quite interesting. The range it sings in is much closer to ranges you’re used to hearing in music. Many birds have songs so high that it’s hard for us to think of them in musical terms because they’re above any instrument or voice we listen to. The musician wren also sings slower than other birds of its size, so we can listen to it in real time. The timbre [vocal quality] is very similar to a human whistle. If you were walking in the Amazon and you heard one, you might think there was a person whistling that tune.

Why does their song sound so human?

We decided to measure the frequencies of each of the notes the bird sang. We found that not only was it singing octaves [an interval spanning eight notes] more often, it was singing perfect fifths and perfect fourths. Those are the three perfect intervals in Western music theory—but they’re not just cultural constructs, they’re actually the simplest interval ratios in sound, and there’s probably a shared physical and biological reason why people and birds gravitate towards them. The birds also preferred consonances [sounds pleasing to the human ear] and stayed away from intervals called dissonances [sounds that disturb us].

Why do you think it's important for biologists and musicians to work together?

They tend to listen in quite different ways. For the most part, musicians aren’t trained in biology and biologists aren’t trained in music. Musicians are very quick to map things that they know—like a chromatic scale for a series of notes—onto things they hear, like a bird song. And mistakes can go in the opposite direction: ‘We can’t prove this bird is making music, so it’s not.’ I think there’s a lot we don’t know. We have to be more open to questions.

This story originally ran in the January-February 2014 issue as "Sweet Sounds."