In my last post, I made a passing reference to a single volume of tunes, the famous collection entitled ‘The Bird Fancyer’s Delight’. I reckoned it was worthy of a whole blog post, because it’s a lovely little collection of jolly ‘birdy’ tunes. Published by Richard Meares in London in 1717, the tunes, composed by William Hill, were specially designed to be within the range and capabilities of the bird. Here’s the front page, advertising ‘Lessons properly composed within the compass and faculty of each Bird’.
And the idea was, you play them repeatedly to your caged bird, in the absence of other birdsong influences, to train them to sing these tunes.
The collection actually contains tunes for canary, linnet, bullfinch, woodlark, parrot, skylark nightingale, thrush, starling and sparrow, and they were specifically composed to be played to one’s pet bird, in order to teach them to sing. The instruments of choice appeared to be the flageolet, flute, or ‘tiny high-pitched recorders less than six inches long, called bird flageolets’ which were ‘invented at the time for the express purpose of teaching birds to sing these particular melodies’ .
Here are some of those tunes, which I played on the sopranino, which is a tiny high-pitched recorder. My instrument is just under ten inches long, but you’ll still get the gist.
Here’s the first one: a tune for a linnet.
Here’s what it sounds like this (without repeats):
Sarah Angliss, in her BBC Radio 4 documentary ‘The Bird Fancyer’s Delight’ (broadcast 5th July 2011) played this very tune, but first described it saying: “I don’t think this is going to be music in imitation of a linnet, but it’s more that I’d like to think that the composer had a linnet in mind when they wrote it. So there might be some little elements of linnet in it” . Her interviewer was less convinced. But frankly, any music played on a high piping instrument, with that many trills, is going to sound like a bird. But does it sound like a linnet specifically? Is it at least ‘within the compass and faculty’ of a linnet?
Here’s a linnet for us to compare with:
Maybe not the precise notes, but it definitely has some of the energy and life, I feel.
Here’s a tune to teach your pet woodlark:
Again, it sounds like this:
And here’s a woodlark recording. I’m thinking, at around 5 seconds, and again at 12 seconds, there’s a repeating phrase sort of based on minor thirds, like our tune?
My final example is the bullfinch.
Which I played like this:
There are no speed markings for these tunes, so, after listening to the sounds of a real bullfinch, I chose a slowish rendition for this one. Here’s the example bullfinch I heard:
This is interesting, perhaps because the sounds suggested a slower sadder tune, and the composer has opted to use a minor key. (However, later tunes for a bullfinch in this collection are major, and there is not a consistent key for each bird, so not a theory worth pursuing).
Are we convinced? I’m guessing the tunes weren’t designed to particularly resemble the songs the birds would have sung in the wild, if raised by their biological parents. But ‘Bird Fancyer’s Delight’ is definitely suggesting these tunes would be singable by the birds, with sufficient training. Treatises from the period actually describe the intensive training that would be needed for tutoring your songbird. For example, you might need to start with a very young bird, deprive it of hearing its species’ own song, and play the piece to it repeatedly, maybe using food incentives .
We know it can be done. There are recorded examples of a hand-reared bullfinch in Germany picking up entire sections of its keeper’s whistled tune . But this tune is much simpler.
Intrigued by the idea that a bird can be trained to replicate music, and in the spirit of scientific research, I decided to undertake a small experiment of my own. Here, I approach my next-door-neighbour’s chickens with a few flute tunes, to see if they perhaps had any learning capabilities. It appears to have been an experiment best not attempted.
- David Rothenberg – ‘Why Birds Sing’ p. 21.
- https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0128pyp Accessed 8th June 2021
- Sarah Angliss https://www.sarahangliss.com/birdfancyersdelightnotes/ Accessed 7th June 2021
- Guttinger et al 2002 in ‘Nature’s Music’ p.36 – edited Peter Marler.