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Birds and All That Jazz

Researchers have discovered that some species of bird can sing off-beat and so produce songs which share the same features as jazz music. A team from the Max Planck Institute in Frankfurt, Germany have looked at the "amplitude envelope" of the thrush nightingale’s song. This is the tune’s timing, duration and intensity and dictates the expressiveness of the song.

Analysing Rhythm

The scientists used a mathematical technique to analyse the rhythms of a series of recorded nightingale songs. Their research revealed fluctuations between predictable and unpredictable patterns which were similar to those found in improvised jazz music. The nightingales were found to deviate in their note timing to make their song more expressive, a little like a swing jazz tune. Gosh!

Standing Out From the Crowd

Expressive song may help birds to stand out to their potential mates. Birdsong, like music, has the goal of attracting and holding the attention of listeners and so the birds employ similar strategies to musicians.

Music expert Emily Doolittle (can you believe she is called Dootlittle given the context?) commented: 'They could be introducing subtle variations in an effort to attract the interest of the song recipient. But it could also be that as they get excited they lose strict rhythmic control, or that they become less regular as their muscles fatigue."

Ms Doolittle (I still can’t get over the name) has previously worked in conjunction with scientists who showed that the hermit thrush uses musical intervals in the same way that that humans do in their musical compositions.

Dancing to the Beat

It is also possible that the birds vary their song in order to help them to dance during their mating ritual. Some males dance whilst singing during their mating display so swing beats might be useful to enable them to better coordinate their movements.

The nightingale is not the only species of bird that has been found to improvise a tune. The veery thrush of North America has also been studied and found to display the same technique. There may be many species which exhibit this talent.

Why is Music So Engaging?

Music is believed to be so engaging because it inspires feelings of surprise, tension and relief via a mixture of predictable and unpredictable patterns. The Max Planck team’s research shows that birdsong can exhibit this effect. Birds have the ability to render songs expressively. Who would have thought it?


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