Music inspired by birdsong (part 5): Vivaldi and the goldfinch.

I’ve been writing about composers whose music has been inspired by birdsong, and noticing if their music is merely generic and bird-like (such as trills and repeating notes), or if it truly resembles how specific birds actually sound. I get very excited when I spot a good musical rendition of a specific birdsong. If we were look at Vivaldi and judge his ornithological accuracy based solely on the musical birdsong that appears in his ‘Four Seasons’, we’d decide he was a composer writing generic birdsong. For example, near the opening of ‘Primavera‘, three solo violins perform trills, runs and repeating notes which are labelled ‘Canto de gl’uccelli’. I was initially quite excited when I read this labelling. Wow! Which was the bird being immortalised in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons? I reached for Google translate, only to learn that ‘Canto de gl’uccelli’ is Italian for ‘birdsong’. OK.

However, much more exciting results are found in Vivaldi’s less well-known concerto for flute and orchestra, named ‘Il Gardellino’ (in D major, Opus 10, no. 3, RV 428). Here we find a complete gem of musical ornithology. Again reaching for google translate, this time I learned that a ‘gardellino’ is a goldfinch. Vivaldi has labelled this piece with a specific bird. Promising. So, I took a further look at just how closely he chose to make the music resemble goldfinch song.

And, the answer is (spoiler alert), magnificently closely. This is a fabulous gold mine of birdsong imitation. I mean, really, really close. Vivaldi must have had a superb ear for birdsong. Here’s what I mean:

The opening flute part from the concerto looks like this:

Here’s what it sounds like (using sampled strings, and me playing the flute part).

In the flute part, I identified several musical motifs, or elements, which can directly be linked to specific elements and notes characteristic to a goldfinch.

The first is a quick, four-note, rising arpeggio figure (bars 1 – 7), which is heard several times:

In the flute:

And in the Goldfinch:


Next up comes the section beginning in bar 13, marked ‘Solo A’ Piacimento‘, (at the player’s pleasure), which means the soloist has the freedom to play this however they wish, presumably in a bird-like manner. Usually, a concerto like this would save this moment of soloistic flamboyance until the cadenza towards the end, when the orchestra also drops out, but Vivaldi has chosen to feature his goldfinch right at the beginning.

This cadenza-like section, begins with a held note, which resembles the little piping squeaking sound I first learned as I was learning to recognise goldfinch song. What follows is a two-note figure consisting of a higher note falling onto the lower squeaking note. Both elements can be heard in this song:

First in the flute:

And then in the goldfinch:

Vivaldi appears to be notating this two-note figure as a falling 2nd, and then a perfect fourth (and later, an octave). Messiaen, twentieth century French composer famous for notating and representing multitudes of birds in his music, also picks out this particular goldfinch call and notated it as a falling minor third [1].

Next comes a series of trilled notes. Vivaldi scores this as the alternating As and Ds, first in flute’s semiquavers (16th notes for you non-Brits), and then in demisemiquavers (32nd notes). So the trilling definitely speeds up.

First in the flute:

Check out what this beautiful goldfinch song sounds like at 4 seconds in.


Towards the end, we have three more elements: the ascending flute octave runs, three short upper notes, and a final:

Listen again to the previous goldfinch example (xeno-canto620853). These three elements resemble, respectively, the upwards gliding notes, (heard two seconds in), three repeating notes, (also heard at 4 seconds) and a final buzzy note (5 seconds in). Here’s the buzzy sound, isolated:

This buzzy note is a rasping buzzy sound that often finishes goldfinch song (and is similar to the concluding buzzing sound in both greenfinch and chaffinch song).

Goldfinch song is often described as tinkly, and metallic. When I was first trying to remember it, I thought it sounded a bit like an organic R2D2. But I’ve been listening to the goldfinch song in my garden with new ears: influenced by Vivaldi’s ears. And they were extraordinary. Without audio recording equipment, Vivaldi picked out sensationally accurate notes and phrases.

With a little re-arranging of the order of the elements from these three goldfinch excerpts, the goldfinch can now neatly play along with the flute:

But who needs the flute? Let’s hand this over to the goldfinch. And so, using just excerpts from the three xeno-canto audio excerpts already played above, I give you the world premiere (as far as I’m aware) of Vivaldi’s flute concerto, performed by the goldfinch.

  1. Projet Voliere

Music inspired by birdsong (part 4): The Bird Fancyer’s Delight

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’ [1].

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” [2]. 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:

Elias A. Ryberg, XC647866. Accessible at

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?

Nicolas Martinez, XC652643. Accessible at

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:

Lars Edenius, XC524570. Accessible at

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 [3].

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 [4]. 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.

  1. David Rothenberg – ‘Why Birds Sing’ p. 21.
  2. Accessed 8th June 2021
  3. Sarah Angliss Accessed 7th June 2021
  4. Guttinger et al 2002 in ‘Nature’s Music’ p.36 – edited Peter Marler.

A personal response to Daines Barrington’s Experiments and Observations on Birdsong (1773).

I recently read a letter written by the ornithologist Daines Barrington, which he submitted to the Royal Society in 1773 [1]. I had actually been tracking down the original quotation for Barrington’s bizarre attitude towards cuckoo calls (of which, later), but instead stumbled on this extraordinary snapshot of early birdsong scientific insights and, presumably, cutting edge research from about 250 years ago.

But, before I allowed myself to chuckle too much at the lack of scientific rigour, or the confident assumptions based on so few observations, or the sloppy referencing, I reminded myself that these ‘Experiments and Observations on the Singing of Birds’, were extraordinary in themselves, precisely because there were no pre-existing shoulders of ornithological giants on which to climb. This was a science in its infancy. In it, Barrington describes genuinely fascinating experiments involving successfully training birds the songs of different species. I was hooked.

But the first thing that struck me, I have to confess, was not so much the science, but the font. Reading a scanned copy of the original publication, I was instantly transported into a world in which sometimes the letter ‘s’ appeared much more like our letter ‘f’, rendering multiple amusing mis-readings in my mind. For example, in his opening paragraph, Daines Barrington explains that:

“As the experiments and obfervations I mean to lay before the Royal Society relate to the finging of birds, which is a fubject that hath never before been fcientifIcally treated of, it may not be improper to prefix an explanation of fome uncommon terms, which I fhall be under a neceffity of coining.” [p.240].

I knew from the outset that this read wasn’t going to be for the faint-hearted. Forever, in my mind, Barrington had a lisp.

Here are some of the genuinely interesting experiments Barrington undertook, by placing caged birds near each other, and his observations:

  • He educated nestling cock linnets with the songs of skylarks, woodlarks and titlarks, and each one learned the song of its instructor rather than singing a linnet’s song.
  • He educated a nestling sparrow with other birdsongs, and it learned to sing snatches of linnet and goldfinch. [A sparrow? Really? Surely sparrows just chirp?].
  • A robin learned a nightingale song, while another robin learned a skylark song taught by a linnet that had been tutored by a skylark.
  • He observed a linnet speak the words ‘pretty boy’, and a goldfinch singing the song of a wren, both birds having been taken from the nest when only a few days old and raised with these other influences in their environment.

His understandable scientific conclusions to these experiments were that birdsong is not innate and is dependent ‘entirely on the master under which they are bred’ [p.252]. This understanding has been recently superseded by fascinating research that birdsong has both innate and learned components (Nature’s Music – edited Peter Marler).

Birds learning the songs of other birds. Yes, I recently heard (and saw) a starling outside my house singing the song a blackbird had sung earlier that morning. Lots of birds mimic like this, in fact. But deliberately educating birds in the songs of other birds? That was different.

Barrington also refers to bird owners deliberately teaching their pets musical tunes, by playing to them. As a composer and musician who records music, I was interested to learn that the word ‘recording’ may have been coined by bird-catchers to describe the stage when a nestling bird learns to sing its song. Barrington wonders whether the word is derived from the musical instrument ‘formerly used in England, called a recorder’, which ‘seems to have been a species of flute, and was probably used to teach young birds to pipe tunes’, and that it had a ‘lesser and greater bore, both above and below’ and also ‘fipple’ mouth piece [p.249]. Yep. That sounds like a recorder. The description ‘formerly used in England’ is interesting in itself. The fact that it needed to be described shows just how far it had fallen into disuse. The archetypal instrument of the Renaissance and Baroque era, it was rarely used in the Classical and Romantic era. Presumably, Barrington was not familiar with ‘The Bird Fancyer’s Delight’, published in 1717, a volume containing tunes designed to teach one’s pet bird to sing, by playing them on the smallest recorder, a sopranino. (In my next blog, I’m going to have a go at playing some of them.)

Some of his comments are merely rather odd, and show how easily we take for granted our ability to time something. For example, he describes the length of a bird’s song as ‘the same interval with a musical bar of four crotchets in an adagio movement, so whilst a pendulum swings four seconds’ [ p.252]. So, about four seconds long, then.

Other comments appear ludicrous. For example, musically, he acknowledges that most birdsong cannot be notated in traditional notation (with the notable exception of the cuckoo), since it’s mostly too fast, too high, and the musical intervals they use don’t align with our Western semitone system. However, he then deviates from this eminently sensible approach to assert that birds all sing in the same key, for the following reason: because it doesn’t sound disagreeable when they all sing together, so the rules of harmony are not being violated, so they must be in the same key. With the help of an experienced harpsichord tuner, who had a good ear for remembering pitches, Barrington pronounced that birds sang in the key of G minor, and that our (Western) musical intervals are originally borrowed from birdsong, because so many musical compositions are in minor keys. I don’t even know where to begin with this. So, I’ll just leave it there.

Regarding the call of a cuckoo, he asserts that the musical interval between the two notes is a minor third, and that composers who represent cuckoos in their music with a major third had not troubled themselves ‘with accuracy in imitating these notes’ [p. 269]. It’s easy to mock, but we must remember that Barrington didn’t have access to the xeno-canto website, where he could have expanded his sample size of one cuckoo call to over a thousand examples. He then would have noticed calls of up to a perfect fourth.

He also offers a delightfully subjective comparison between the merits of the songs of various British birds, judged in terms of categories such as ‘mellowness of tone’ and ‘sprightly notes’. Here it is:

He later experimented by asking a flute player to have a go at playing a piece of noted nightingale music (by Kircher, in 1650) but concluded the reason it didn’t sound like a nightingale was because of the note durations being hard to replicate. (Yep, that was why.)

His paper even notes the different regional dialects noted by bird-catchers between goldfinches, chaffinches and nightingales.

But there is definitely an uncomfortable side to this paper, where his observations are at odds with our cultural environmental values, and leave us feeling outright uneasy. For example, Barrington asserts that Londoners are better at identifying birdsong than people who live in the countryside, because country dwellers only get birdsong about two months of the year, when they all sing together at once (in the wild), whereas Londoners hear each bird distinctly in their homes or shops (that is, in cages), and that caged birds often sing ten months of the year. He mentions in passing that wrens rarely live long in a cage. He describes how nightingales become ‘sulky’ when first confined to a cage, and need to be force-fed otherwise they stop eating, and their wings have to be tied ‘to prevent his killing himself against the top or sides of the cage’ [p.264].

To us, the mere idea of a caged wild bird now feels wrong, as does the profession of ‘bird-catcher’, (someone who gathers birds from the wild, to sell) – as well being illegal. The roaring trade he mentions in imported birds from Asia, Africa and America, is uncomfortable stuff, especially with his assertions that these birds cannot nevertheless be compared to their ‘superior’ European counterparts. There are also accounts of birds being routinely tortured in order to achieve greater beauty in their songs, in order to win contests.

But we can’t be too self-righteous about our current-day approach to birds. Who knows how scientists will be judging us in 250 years time for the devastating declines in bird populations being clocked up right now?

  1. Experiments and observations on the singing of birds, by the Hon. Daines Barrington, Vice Pres. R. S. In a letter to Mathew Maty, M.D. Sec. R.S.

Music inspired by birdsong (Part 3): Birds in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony

Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, known as his ‘Pastoral’ symphony, has moments when the music is explicitly depicting sounds from nature. The fourth movement, for example, re-enacts a thunderstorm: beginning with droplets of rain (short, fast violin notes) and distant thunder (timpani rolls), it builds to thunderclaps and lightning (timpani hits followed by single loud woodwind chords) before subsiding to gentler music again as the storm recedes. Knowing that Beethoven was taking great care to create nature realism in this symphony, it nevertheless took me by surprise when I turned my attention to the famous section of birdsong towards the end of the second movement, and realised just how closely Beethoven was re-creating the actual birdsong he would have heard on his walks in the countryside.

The clue was probably in the fact that Beethoven names the birds in his score. In the flute line we read “Nachtigall” (nightingale), the oboe is labelled “Wachtel” (quail), and the clarinets are the “Kukuk” (cuckoo) [1].

And in excerpt (having transposed the Bb clarinets to C instruments):

So here is my  rendition of Beethoven’s score for birds (at this point in the score, all the other instruments have stopped playing). 

Granted, I’d already spotted that the two clarinets, playing in unison, are extremely cuckoo-like. Surely, this has to be the most recognisable bird in the history of music. Two notes, usually in a falling interval of a minor third. There’s even a musical instrument called the cuckoo, which plays these two notes, and makes a solo appearance in the ‘Toy Symphony’ (composed by Leopold Mozart…or Franz Josef Haydn…no-one’s quite sure).

Here is Beethoven’s clarinet cuckoo, followed by a cuckoo that was recorded in June 2019 that sounds pretty similar. (Yes, I did deliberately choose a recording of the cuckoo at the same pitches).

Ireneusz Oleksik, XC478852. Accessible at

Composers actually vary in which musical interval they use to depict their cuckoos. Here, Beethoven is using a falling major third, but elsewhere in music it has been a minor third (Leopold Mozart/Haydn’s Toy Symphony), or even a perfect fourth (Mahler’s first Symphony). The actual musical interval, it turns out, is seasonal. The falling minor third is generally the sound made by a cuckoo in spring, but this interval tends to widen to a major third, then later a fourth as the season progresses. (I should add, this listening is made by people with ears acclimatised to Western classical music, no doubt making microtonal shifts in order to ‘resolve’ them into classical intervals). So it would seem that Beethoven’s cuckoo was heard slightly later in the season than early spring, as was the example given above (it was recorded in June), and the famous Pastoral symphony storm was probably a summer storm rather than spring storm.

Having readily identified the cuckoo, my curiosity was piqued by wondering (as a relative newbie to learning to identify birdsongs) what a quail actually sounds like. Imagine my delight when I discovered this wonderful three note call, in the distinctive dotted rhythm scored by Beethoven, in quail recordings. Also, pretty much all of the quail recordings I auditioned in were pitched at or close to this high D chosen by Beethoven. (Although multiple harmonics are present and it can be difficult to determine which is loudest.) Here’s the oboe part, followed by a quail recording.

Joost van Bruggen, XC483556. Accessible at

Freshly emboldened by my success, I now turn to the nightingale. The nightingale has a complex and rich repertoire of calls, songs and phrases. Here’s how Simon Barnes describes it in his book ‘Bird Watching with your Eyes Closed’ [2]. First he points out that in one study a male nightingale demonstrated 250 different phrases, using a repertoire of 600 song units. Hmmm. Finding Beethoven’s phrase could prove tricky. But then he points to two ‘basic and unmistakable bits of nightingale song: the first, an unbelievably clear and passionate whistling, short notes that gather in intensity and volume’. (The second is a ‘deep, throbbing drumming’.) Is the first what we have here? Here’s Beethoven’s flute nightingale again:

This recording of a nightingale (in Germany) appears to start the whistling phrase after about three seconds. It gets louder, speeds up, and erupts into energetic trilling.

Stephan Risch, XC568090. Accessible at

I find myself wondering if Beethoven’s choice of birds in his Sixth Symphony (completed in 1808) was influenced by the Toy Symphony (perhaps written in the 1760s)? After all, he studied composition with Haydn, in Vienna. As well as the cuckoo, the Toy Symphony also features a part for quail and nightingale, which can also be played on dedicated musical instruments built to simulate these birds. (The nightingale is a strange affair involving blowing into a small canister containing water, and the resulting bubbling whistle sounds like a nightingale trill). The Toy Symphony composer scores the nightingale as just a trill, and the quail as the distinctive three notes in dotted rhythm [3].

As for Beethoven’s instrumentation in the Pastoral symphony, he chose unison clarinets for his cuckoo. The instrument makes a lower sound than the flute, and when played quietly has a pure timbre that perhaps suggests a more diffuse sound coming from a distance? Why two clarinets, and not soloists, like the other birds? Two instruments create a different timbre compared to one soloist. Perhaps the ‘chorus’ effect in his instrumentation suggests the slight echoey effect of a distant cuckoo sound echoing through a forest? The quail, however, makes a more strident sound, better suited to the strong tonguing attack an oboist would need in order to reach those Ds in a somewhat high register for the instrument. And flute for the nightingale seems the obvious choice for the whistling phrase Beethoven chose to score. But perhaps a composer would need to use many more effects if they wished to represent more sounds from this bird’s vast repertoire, such as a flautist slapping their fingers down on the flute’s keys to make the clicking beats that feature in nightingale song.

One final point. The second movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony is entitled ‘Szene am Bach’ (Scene by the brook) and begins with gentle repeating string phrases that imitate flowing water. I am reminded of the opening of Daphnis and Chloe (Suite 2) — see part one — which also simulates a flowing brook but through woodwind and harp repeating ‘bubbling’ phrases, and with programmatic elements also written into the score such as ‘On percoit des chants d’oiseaux’ (we hear birdsong).


[1] First Edition Score from Breitkopf & Hartel (Leipzig), from IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library (Public Domain).

[2] Simon Barnes: Bird Watching with your Eyes Closed. Published by Short Books, 2011, quotation from page 258.

[3] Score from Breitkopf & Hartel, Haydn Kinder-Symphonie, from IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library (Public Domain).

Music inspired by birdsong (Part Two): Tweets, trills and flourishes.

In Part One of this series, (Generic bird sounds in flute music), we looked at some of the musical devices used by composers to represent the sounds of birds, using examples from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe (Suite No.2). In this post, I’ll take three of these devices (grace notes, trills and flourishes) and offer examples from real birds that may have inspired these musical sounds, alongside how they would sound as I play them on the piccolo. It’s worth mentioning at this point a few things about using birdsong in music: birds sing incredibly fast and at much higher pitches than we find easy to follow or play, they don’t sing in discrete musical pitches that correlate neatly with our Western musical system of tones and semitones, and they don’t observe regular beats with regular subdivisions. Having said that, let’s plough on looking at musical devices that represent them in music!

1. The first is the grace note. We usually see it written in notation as a very small quaver note with a slash through it, leading into a main note.

It has to be played very quickly, just before the main note, sort of squashed in before it, with the first note tongued but then slurring into the second. Here are a few piccolo examples of the above.

To me, these two notes (grace note followed by main note) is your universal generic ‘tweet’. Compare it to a house sparrow. In this audio, each chirp is not just a single pitch, but begins with a higher-pitched, more strongly attacked sound that moves down. It’s actually more of a chir-rup than a chirp.

[Pere Josa, XC600002. Accessible at]

And here’s my attempt to reproduce what I’m hearing in the above audio, played on the piccolo. I’ve moved it to much higher notes to more accurately imitate the actual frequencies.

And again, this time with the piccolo and sparrow recording combined…

2. Trills involve alternating between two adjacent notes very quickly. On a flute it’s usually a case of lifting and replacing one finger very rapidly (it should look like a motion blur). It’s written with the trill abbreviation ‘tr’ above the note, and a wavy line.

And here are examples of this, played on the piccolo.

Trilling is so common to birdsong it is even part of the birdsong descriptive language. I’ve chosen the wren for my comparison because of the way a wren’s song is almost always described as having the distinctive trill at the end of its song (as well as being incredibly loud).

[Jacek Betleja, XC632487. Accessible at]

To me, I’m actually hearing several trills in succession, at different speeds. When it came to reproducing this song on the piccolo, I actually played trills for the slower alternating sounds, but for the buzzy trill towards the end, (presumably the ‘distinctive trill’ everyone is referring to), I opted for a flutter-tongue technique (see future post). My fingers simply could go fast enough. Hats off to the wren!

And the two recordings combined:

3. For a flourish, the notation is usually a stream of short notes, beamed together, which must take place within the given duration. Here’s the example from Daphnis and Chloe, followed by my flute rendition.

For this comparison, I’m thinking of a blackbird, with its beautiful fluid flutey phrases.

[David Tattersley, XC629598. Accessible at]

As I made the piccolo rendition, there were moments that reminded me strongly of the opening of Messiaen’s flute piece ‘Le Merle Noir’ (‘The Blackbird’). (Watch this space for a future post!)

Here’s the piccolo:

And, again, combined with the original audio I was copying:

So, here’s what I learned as I did this exercise. Birdsong is fabulous! Trying to copy their song with regular beats and pitches feels almost mechanical. And yet, as a composer, there was something liberating about attempting to copy it, as if I was somehow being freed from the limitations of Western music and its notation! Part three to follow soon!

Music inspired by birdsong (Part One): Generic bird sounds in flute music

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).

Flute 1

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.