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

Michael Baruzzini

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.

  • Gian

    But why should I believe the biologists that the birds sing only because of reproductive utility?

    “bird songs lack the underlying musical structure that we normally associate with music.”

    Music is what is pleasing to hear. If the bird songs lack some mathematical structure found in some human music, that is so much worse for the notion of music as a mathematical harmony and is not derogatory to the bird songs.

    Perhaps, tomorrow the scientists will discover a more subtle mathematics hidden in bird songs, even richer than human harmonic music. I believe not all human music is harmonic either.

  • Randall

    Welcome to TCT, Mr Baruzzini. This is a beautifully written, intelligently balanced piece of writing. I look forward to reading more of you on this website.

  • David Warren

    We have, up here in the High Doganate (our Toronto flat), several seemingly scientific books on birdsong, dating back half a century, plus field studies by e.g. the sainted (by us) Alexander Skutch. This last, for instance, did extensive work on the hummingbirds of Central America, showing that different species had different background choral arrangements, & within a species, local populations appeared to have their own choral traditions, sustained from one generation to another. Too, Skutch, along with such “classic” birdsong authorities as Edward Armstrong & William Homan Thorpe, was under the impression that they sang for no damn good reason except, being free of predators, under no breeding pressure, & having found enough food, they wished to amuse themselves. Quite elaborate repetitive patterns have often been observed; but we don’t recall anyone ever suggesting that any species of bird sang on humanly-interpretable harmonic principles, or could be taught to do so except by rote.

    So, contrary to the learned & charitable Catholic apologist, we suspect the test was indeed designed to contribute to “the scientific disenchantment of the world,” by providing a fresh cartload of statistics characteristically irrelevant to the question.

    Further aside. Thorpe, mentioned above, was a pioneer of animal ethology, the principal engine of advance in the study of animal behaviour through the 20th century. He used sound spectrography to analyse birdsong. A heavyweight perfesser at Cambridge (U.K.), sometime president of British Ornithological Union, fellow of Royal Society, &c, he was not exactly an amateur. His magnum opus was (to my mind), Duetting & Antiphonal Song in Birds (Leiden, 1972).

    I mention him particularly because I vaguely recall a crude & stinking attack on his reputation, by a Darwinoid some years ago, based on the fact Thorpe was Christian, & had received superb training in classics & philosophy. To the vicious & ignorant Darwinoid mind, this disqualifies a man from the practice of biology.

    The main scandal was a book he wrote towards the end of his life, entitled, Purpose in a World of Chance (Oxford, 1978). It is, among other things, a magnificent demonstration of the inevitability of the “intelligent design” principle in nature, & it says explicitly that without taking a religious view, one is blinded to phenomena that are obvious & demonstrable. He lamented the decay of metaphysics, which in the 17th & 18th centuries was still manly enough to deal with realities. Since the 19th it had been running away from all challenges. He admired Whitehead for at least not being a coward.

  • Patrick

    I also think that this study doesn’t really prove anything about the musicality of birdsong. I wonder if its author took the time to compare birdsong to each one of the hundreds of different scales in use throughout the world. Many Eastern music traditions would also be considered unharmonic according to a narrow view of harmony. Even if birdsong didn’t match to any scale currently in use, that would seem to say more about our system of musical notation and composition than about the harmonic nature of birdsong.

    And also, the great French Catholic composer Olivier Messiaen considered birds to be the finest musicians around, and found it worth his time to catalogue hundreds of different species’ songs, using a custom notation. It makes some sense to consider his opinion on music more authoritative than that of biologist.

  • senex

    If we enjoy birdsong, it is because it is beautiful and raises our spirits. Compare that to today’s rap and atonal so called music. Where there is no beauty, there is no truth. Man seeks truth, in seeking knowledge and goodness and in art. If God gives the animal world the capacity to enthrall us with beauty that God has given them by instinct, should we not embrace the beauty of their song? Too much analysis is deadening.

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    Bravo, David Warren! I don’t want to take anyting away from Dr. Baruzzini’s helpful and delightful atilce, but David Warren has s own that naure is not full of mere utility, an observation that is important for several reasons, not the least of which is that it counters the notion that all biological phenomena emerge for merely evolutionary purposes, leading the new ahteists to claim that our very virtues can be explainend away as sentamenetlized survival stratiegies. And Gian pointed out (without using this expression) that harmony is is in the ear of the listener. We have all heard about the first reactions to The Rite of Spring. Today who would say that they Tristan chord is disonant? How would Mozrt have reeacted to the simple flattenin of a few notes that produces the tonal quality called bluess? The woods are filled with gorgious sounds, and so is the woodwind section. Neiher musical genious nor the love of beautiful music is a surival or evoutionary advantage. Both are gifts from God, and only the saddest of souls imagaines otherwise.

  • Mack Hall

    Spurn not the frog!

    O Ye of Little Frog

    for those who deny that frogs sing to God

    O ye of little faith in night’s mysteries
    Oft hasten to explain away God’s arts,
    And dampen joys with your false-writ histories
    Believing in dull books, and not your hearts.

    You claim that frogs sing only to gain mates,
    Based on some long-dead dullard’s science log,
    Claiming the last word on reptilian traits –
    What do you know of the love-life of a frog?

    You might then with equal injustice claim
    That Compline is sung in order to attract
    Women – but is that Saint Benedict’s aim?
    Poor frogs and monks sing hymns; and that’s a fact!

  • jason taylor

    Of course even human music is SOMETIMES for asserting territorial possession,

  • Carol O.

    Beautiful! What Randall said, also Mack Hall! Last, it surely wasn’t science we heard in bird-song on 9//12/01.

  • a j mithra

    Indian music, the most scientific music on the face of this earth is based on melody, whereas western music is based on harmony.. The total number of scales can be derived like this..
    15 Major Scales (12)
    15 Natural Minor Scales (12 However not Unique Since they are Enharmonic with the 6th mode ‘Aeolian’ of the major scale so 0)
    15 Harmonic Minor Scales (12)
    15 Medolic Minor Scales (12)
    2 Whole Argumented Scales (Whole Tone ? 2)
    3 Diminished Scales (3)
    2 Pentatonic Scales
    (This one is not so easy, there are at least 12 of the standard Pentatonic scale made from a stack of 5ths [CGDAE], if you want to inclue other types of 5 note scales in this class then there will be many more)
    But whereas South Indian Carnatic music has got millions of scales.. Scales which use all seven notes in an octave is 72 melakartha ragas (ragas are scales)
    sca,es which use seven on the ascending and six and five notes on the ascending and vice versa would come to about 38,484 ragas or scales..
    Bird songs maynot be harmonious but they are melodious..Science may say that bird songs are musical. Music has proved science to be wrong on many occasions.. In India there is a percussion instrument called “Mirudangam”,wherein the structure of the two layers of cow skin should not bring sound.This is what the great scientist Sir.C.V.Raman had proved. But msuic has proved physics wrong. According to physics , two different. cannot be made from either side of one hole.. But, a stone pillar in one the temples in India has a hole drilled through it. When blown on one side one could hear a conch and when blown on the opposite side a horn sound.. If scientists says bird songs are not musical, music would certainly prove that science is wrong. Cos music is more scientific.. The whole planet is still working since it is based on harmony..