Beauty and Birdsong

A study recently released in the journal Animal Behavior analyzes the song of that most famous of avian singers, the nightingale, in terms of its harmonic properties. Alas, according to the science, there is no music there. Whereas the notes and harmonies of music as we know it are set according to set intervals of various musical scales, birdsongs are more random.

In the abstract to his paper, author Marcel Araya-Salas writes, “I tested a prediction derived from this hypothesis, that frequency ratios of adjacent notes in birdsong are closer to harmonic intervals than expected by chance. . . . From 243 comparisons, only six (∼2%) were significantly close to harmonic intervals, suggesting no consistent use of harmonic intervals.” In translation: birdsongs lack the underlying musical structure that we normally associate with music.

Commenting on the study for Science, Emily Underwood writes, “Although humans have long attributed musical qualities to birdsong, cold, hard statistics show that’s all an illusion.” It might seem that we have here another instance of science disenchanting the world. Is reductionism at work yet again, erasing beauty, harmony, music, and art from the picture of the world in favor of the cold and abstract world of science?

Yet there is something intriguing in the fact that this study establishes a fundamental difference between music as known by man and the vocalizations of birds. The bird songs are discounted because they lack that higher order and harmonic beauty which is present in music—precisely the kind of music that the human being has the capacity to create and to enjoy. 

John Polkinghorne, the Anglican priest and physicist, once wrote of human uniqueness, “[M]any biologists claim not to be able to see anything really distinctive about Homo sapiens. They regard human behaviour as just another instance of animal behaviour, and humanity as a not particularly special twig on the burgeoning bush of evolutionary development.” In defense of humans, however, he claimed, “The beautiful notes of a birdsong are apparently principally a means of asserting territorial possession, but humans explore the inexhaustible riches of music for reasons that centre on delight rather than utility.”

Just so. It would seem that in this scientific take-down of birdsong, we find an unexpected endorsement of the unique ability of the human mind. It is not the case that human song is just a more complicated example of animal calls. It is something different altogether. If our music is not only different than birdsong in degree, but in fact in kind, there is something different in kind about us. Or, as Chesterton famously put it, “Art is the signature of man.”

            2,000-year-old painting of a nightingale found at Pompeii

Still, simply to say that man makes music and birds just make noise doesn’t seem quite right. No one who has beheld beauty in a natural scene or found the sounds of a springtime forest captivating will quite be content with such a devaluation of Creation.

A clue lies in recognizing that the kind of beauty that is present in man’s music, and not in birdsong, is nevertheless not something that man himself creates. The mathematically-based beauty of music is something discovered, not invented. The harmonies that please, that are recognized as ordered and beautiful even by the untrained ear, reveal upon examination ordered relationships that reflect a deeper harmony.

This harmony precedes man, it does not emerge from him. So even though man’s nature allows him to access a level of beauty not present in birdsongs alone, even man is not the origin of the beauty he has the special privilege to enjoy. 

Thus, although birds do not make music as such for themselves, and just as flowers do not grow beautifully in order to please man’s aesthetic sense but rather to aid reproduction, they may still capture a kind of beauty greater than themselves. Though they do not exhibit the higher properties of man’s music and man’s art, both birdsongs and flowers remain beautiful, because they may, through man’s mind, have a connection to something beyond both birds and man.

The great German theologian Romano Guardini wrote of the Catholic view of the world:

This is not a fairy-tale approach to nature in which the sun and the moon, the trees, and so forth are personalized and given voices with which to sing the praise of God; it is an inspired poetic rendering of the idea that the sun and the moon and all created things are a mirror of God’s glory because, as His creation, they reflect something of His nature. In so doing, they praise Him by their very existence. They themselves know nothing of it, but man does; he can think himself into their silent song of praise; he can voice it on their behalf, offer it up to God and thus act as the spokesman of creation.
What is for the bird or for the flower an eminently practical thing is, in the eyes of man – God’s image – a refractor of something more.

In both the intellectual beauty of music, and in the unconscious beauty of nature, man has access to beauty in a way not shared by other animals. He sees that it is not an expression of just the evolutionarily useful, but is a reflection of a higher Source.

Michael Baruzzini is a freelance science writer and editor who writes for Catholic and science publications, including Crisis, First Things, Touchstone, Sky & Telescope, The American Spectator, and elsewhere. He is also the creator of, which offers online science curriculum resources for Catholic students.