Depicting birdsong in music seems wonderfully obvious; birdsong has pitch, rhythm, structure, repetition, and timbre – the components that make up music. We perceive the sounds of songbirds as musical. Anthropomorphically, we call it song. Composers through the centuries have used birdsong in music to symbolise the idyllic dream, the beautiful rural landscape, the escape into nature that benefits our mental health. (The fact that birdsong is actually about territorial wars and attracting mates is conveniently absent.)
Using the flute to depict birdsong is also obvious: the flute’s high pitch, the easy virtuosity (trills, runs, and grace notes come more naturally to playing the flute than, say, the trombone – sorry, trombonists) and the flute’s birdy timbre makes it the obvious choice to represent birdsong in music. Give the score a handful of flute trills, pop some grace notes in here and there, and we know we’re in the countryside, and there are birds present.
Before I became fascinated by the actual songs of birds themselves, I also took this rather general approach. To me, birds made generic bird sounds: tweets, trills, and whistles. ‘Birdsong’ was an umbrella term that included anything birdy, and could be created through musical devices such as grace notes, trills, flourishes and repeating notes.
A fantastic example is found in one of my favourite pieces, Ravel’s ‘Daphnis and Chloe’ (Suite 2), completed in 1912. Ravel’s orchestration uses a piccolo, flute and three solo violins to depict the birds in a dawn chorus.
Here’s an excerpt of the piccolo part (petite flute 1)1: The player begins playing in the third bar after figure 156 (the small notes before that are cued cello notes, to help the performer know when to come in). It would sound an octave higher than written. In this section, we can see grace notes, flourishes, repeated notes and trills; four effects that composers have traditionally used to recreate birdsong:
Here’s a rendition of how that part would sound on its own2.
(Frankly, it can be disheartening as an orchestral player when you realise just how quiet you are in the mix from the audience’s position of listening. It sounds so much louder from where you’re sitting in the middle of the orchestra.)
But, master orchestrator that he is, Ravel takes his score a little further. After the piccolo has started, the flute joins in with a new effect: flutter-tonguing (rolling an ‘r’ while simultaneously playing a note), which captures the raspy sound sometimes heard in birdsong. (It’s the last note of this bar).
Here’s how this sounds on its own3.
At the same time, three solo violins are playing three different sets of harmonic notes, simultaneously, which simulate the sound of a single bird whose tone includes multiphonics (more than one pitch sounding at a time).
Heard in the full orchestral context, the birds are harder to pick out individually, being just one in a chorus of nature sounds, including a bubbling brook effect. In the orchestral version linked below, the three violins begin their harmonics at 39 seconds, the piccolo bird can be heard at 43 seconds, and the flute bird begins at 53 seconds, with the flutter-tongue notes at 57 seconds.
To me, this passage is possibly one of the most sublime orchestral renditions of sounds in nature in the history of Western music. However, stunning though the music is, to an ornitholgist the bird sounds themselves might be unsatisfyingly generic. I certainly wouldn’t be able to identify exactly which types of birds might have been singing here. (If anyone can make suggestions, I’d be delighted to hear from you.)
In further posts in this series, I will look at music inspired by composers who had really listened to the songs of individual birds and created music based on recognisable features, albeit stylised, of actual bird songs, rather than using generic birdsong effects. But before that, I will be taking the musical devices discussed above (such as trills and grace notes), and comparing instrumental audio renditions with audio examples of birds tweeting, trilling and whistling that might have inspired the devices, as a direct comparison.
1 All scores: Publisher: Paris: Durand, 1913, from IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library (public domain).
2 Yeah, OK, it’s me (Fiona Taylor) playing this. I’m probably a bit rusty after all this time…
3 Also me playing.