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Music Science

Birds Found Using Human Musical Scales For the First Time 80

sciencehabit writes The flutelike songs of the male hermit thrush are some of the most beautiful in the animal kingdom. Now, researchers have found that these melodies employ the same mathematical principles that underlie many Western and non-Western musical scales—the first time this has been seen in any animal outside humans. It's doubtful that the similarity is due to the physics of the birds' vocal tract, the team reports. Rather, it seems male hermit thrushes choose to sing notes from these harmonic series. It may be that such notes are easier for the males to remember, or provide a ready yardstick for their chief critics—female hermit thrushes. The study adds to other research indicating that human music is not solely governed by cultural practices, but is also at least partially determined by biology.
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Birds Found Using Human Musical Scales For the First Time

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  • by cayenne8 ( 626475 ) on Monday November 03, 2014 @06:53PM (#48305863) Homepage Journal
    ..I could have sworn I heard Whole Lotta Love blasting out of the magnolia tree across the street.

    Turns out, it might have been a couple of bluejays getting horny!!!

    The only thing missing was the sound of the thermin...

      • by unitron ( 5733 )

        I was thinking even more old school than that: Rockin' Robin

        • But you didn't come through with a URL, so, what difference, at this point, does it make?
          • by treeves ( 963993 )

            This is even more old school anyways: www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8pFNQv35uI

          • by unitron ( 5733 )

            But you didn't come through with a URL, so, what difference, at this point, does it make?

            But all you supplied was a link to YouTube which has to be loaded before you know what it is, instead of just being able to mouse over it and see something written in human understandable language at the bottom of the page to possibly give you a clue as to whether you want to bother with it or not.

            Which is really more a complaint against YouTube than against you.

    • by PPH ( 736903 )

      And that explains the magpie saying, "Needs more cowbell."

    • by flyneye ( 84093 )

      I heard "SAIL!", but it was just two Ostriches screwing in a Volkwagen.

    • by T.E.D. ( 34228 )

      ..I could have sworn I heard Whole Lotta Love blasting out of the magnolia tree across the street.

      Probably not. Blues uses mostly sharps and flats (eg: not the notes this article is talking about).

      Most likely it was just John Cusack with a boom-box on the lawn trying to get his girl back. Stereotypical stalker. If it happens again, call the cops on him.

    • ..I could have sworn I heard Whole Lotta Love blasting out of the magnolia tree across the street.

      Turns out, it might have been a couple of bluejays getting horny!!!

      The only thing missing was the sound of the thermin...

      If you mean the descending sound in the chorus, I don't think it's a theremin. I've always thought it was slide guitar and volume control.

  • by Narcocide ( 102829 ) on Monday November 03, 2014 @07:14PM (#48305993) Homepage

    Bird Reporter: This just in! Humans now claiming ownership of our musical scales.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The extent hearing is determined by physics is largely ignored. Musical theory is, in its most literal form, about matching waveforms. They harmonize because the waveforms are in harmony, literally. That such a physical point exists outside of human cognition allows it to be an emergent point for evolution, easier to learn how to detect through the white noise than patterns that fail to resonate coherently in the listener's environment.

    Frankly, duh.

    • Frankly, duh.

      I guess you know everything.

    • by acroyear ( 5882 )

      Indeed. The nature of the relationship between the 'first' and 'fifth', the first harmonic overtone, is inherent in the actual physics of sound itself. The order of 'discovery' of the other notes of the scale inherently result from developing an ear to notice the other harmonics - it only takes finding 8 harmonics to end up with a pentatonic scale, found in almost every historical culture in the world.

      It does, however, take a matter of conscious choice to actually develop the whole circle of fifths, the ide

      • Indeed. The nature of the relationship between the 'first' and 'fifth', the first harmonic overtone, is inherent in the actual physics of sound itself.

        You're mixing modern and archaic terminologies. The first harmonic (modern) of a note is its fundamental (lowest) frequency. The first overtone (archaic) is the octave above it. The "fifth" is the third harmonic (or second overtone.)

        modulation [...] and then the necessity of tempering the instrument - all aspects strictly of western tonality (with the resulting western a-tonality that followed in the 20th century: our atonality is actually still a limitation of our instruments of choice and the temperament they inherited).

        I wouldn't call atonality a limitation of Western instruments. Rather, it was a natural progression from the flexibility that modulation and equal temperament provided, from Wagner to Schoenberg.

        I don't expect the birds to actually get that far...and even if they did, we'd just be accusing them of impersonating Messiaen's works.

        I think Messiaen would smack you for saying that. He was a great lover of birds.

        • by jblues ( 1703158 )
          > I don't expect the birds to actually get that far...and even if they did, we'd just be accusing them of impersonating Messiaen's works. So we will have: Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C major for the well-tempered hermit thrush . . . but if an equal tempered Hermit Thrush ever comes along and uses a dominant 7th to modulate to the key of G we'll all be flabbergasted.
    • First came music, then language, symbolism, and finally math. The last two are where humans have unique abilities.
  • Every single thing we do is determined by biology, which is determined by chemistry, which is determined by physics... after that, turtles... or the Loch Ness Monster

    • While the world is surely made up of math and physics, we learn to observe, measure, and act based on our social interactions. If nobody bothered to teach you math, language, etc.. you would be no better than an animal (and most likely eaten by one).

      Biology gives us basics, such as survival instincts. Interaction, observation, and accumulated knowledge give us Physics and Music. Young birds seem to learn learn to call just like we learn to yell if we need something, and they progress beyond that basic ye

      • Statistical anomaly remains such until more study proves otherwise.

        Or do you think those contributions were original, and outside what the researchers have encountered in existing feedback?

        Because it seems like you took a position Based on a poorly reported and poorly presented bit of crap research. Hint, when the conclusion is anthropomorphize, it takes a lot of evidence.

        Are you aware how many times sexual reproduction evolved? Independent discovery among very different people, or species, or kingdoms, is

        • by s.petry ( 762400 )
          You received the exact wrong impression. My comment was more that Biology is not the primary factor involved in social interactions, as GP seemed to claim.
          • Yes, every social interaction clearly is a biological/chemical/physical function. There is nothing higher than the laws of nature. Man is not supernatural. Brain chemistry determines how he feels, what he thinks, and what he does.

      • While the world is surely made up of math and physics

        IAAMandP, and I'll be the first to tell you tell you humbly that I have no idea what the world is "surely" made up of. What I am sure of is that MandP (and by extension, science) is the best way for humans to construct an understanding of what the world is made up of.

        Interaction, observation, and accumulated knowledge give us Physics and Music.

        I'm with you there. And aren't we blessed to receive both.

        • by s.petry ( 762400 )

          I guess my thoughts were more along the lines of how animals and plants reproduce and grow based on what we recognize as mathematical principles. We also know that our laws of physics limit our world, just like they limit us. When free, 2 Hydrogen atoms + an Oxygen atom will create a water molecule if the conditions are correct. Bonded, the rule changes and we are stuck with a different molecule unless atoms are freed.

          "Surely made up of" simply indicates that there seem to be a finite set of rules that m

      • I always considered mathematics to be a way of expressing physical law. Not really a force per se, more of a language to make it understandable and quantifiable.

  • a bird singing some Messiaen the other day. The resemblance was uncanny.

    • Re:I'm sure I heard (Score:5, Interesting)

      by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) on Monday November 03, 2014 @07:50PM (#48306203) Journal

      When I used to live in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains some decades ago, there was a bird whose song I could hear right about dusk every night. It would sing the first few notes of "The Way You Look Tonight". I was even able to pick out the exact pitches on my chromatic harmonica. The song is in Eb and the bird was in perfect tune. Bb, Eb, F.

      I never did find out what bird it was, and only lived there for a matter of months. There were so many songbirds around there, it really did sound like Messiaen sometimes. And then all of a sudden...it would get absolutely quiet. Then they'd come back little by little.

      There was also a rooster that would wake me up at daybreak, but I didn't appreciate that nearly as much.

      The last few times I was in Europe, I noticed a significant absence of songbirds (and birds in general, in fact). Of course there are pigeons all over the cities, but very few songbirds.

      Regarding birds, and offtopic, if you want to read a really interesting book, I recommend A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction, by Joel Greenberg. I'm not a birder or even much for nature, having grown up in downtown Chicago, but this book, which someone gave me as a gift, blew my mind. It's a hell of a story. Here, if anyone is interested:

      http://www.amazon.com/Feathere... [amazon.com]

      It was so interesting that I'm thinking about reading another book that I heard was about the now-extinct passenger pigeon, The Silent Sky, which is actually about the last of the species that died in the early part of the 20th century..

      • Your observation of bird decline in Europe is confirmed...

        A study found that about 90 percent of a decline occurred in the most common bird species, including grey partridges, skylarks, sparrows and starlings

        Europe has an estimated 421 million fewer birds than three decades ago, and current treatment of the environment is unsustainable for many common species, a study released on Monday said. The population crash is related to modern farming methods and the loss and damage of habitats, according to

    • by acroyear ( 5882 )

      So glad I'm not the only one who thought that when I read the headline.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Bird sounds from the lyre bird [youtube.com] and more [youtube.com]

  • ...that underlie many Western and non-Western musical scales...

    So, in other words... that underlie all musical scales??

  • Harmony in music is based almost directly on the simplicity of the ratio of the frequencies of notes in a chord.

    Octave = 1/2
    Fifth = 2/3
    Fourth = 3/4
    Major Third = 4/5
    Minor Third = 5/6

    and so on.

    Their are certain cultural anomalies; For example our our preference for three notes in a simple chord (first, third and fifth) means that fourths are generally considered slightly more disharmonious that thirds, due to their relationship to the third and the fifth.

    Also the intervals in most instruments are fudged sligh

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      Pedagogy time. Vibrating bodies of any physical type will vibrate at an infinite ascending series of whole number multiples of the base frequency f (so, f, 2f, 3f, etc.) in decreasing -- but not linearly or regularly decreasing -- amplitude (the exact difference in the proportions of the various overtones, among other factors, is why different instruments sound different).

      The musical scale used in most music in the Western tradition, however, does not use anything like a harmonic series. Rather, it (prese
      • Pedagogy time. Vibrating bodies of any physical type will vibrate at an infinite ascending series of whole number multiples of the base frequency f (so, f, 2f, 3f, etc.) in decreasing -- but not linearly or regularly decreasing -- amplitude (the exact difference in the proportions of the various overtones, among other factors, is why different instruments sound different).

        False. Your description is only true of very even (theoretical) one-dimensional vibrating bodies. Thin strings and thin columns of air (think some brass instruments) come closest to this, but those are generally not naturally occurring.

        Even other human instruments display a much greater variety of potential harmonics -- if you introduce a conical bore instead of a cylindrical one into a wind instrument, for example, some harmonics will be emphasized over others, and the "infinite ascending series" of co

      • Bach used "Well Temperament,"

        Hence, "The Well-Tempered Clavier".

    • Not anymore. Since the domination of the equal temperament scales, only the octave sounds pure. I am curious to whether the birds use our modern equal temperament scales or more natural scales.
  • The twelve tone scale in humans corresponds to the resonant frequencies of our vertebrae. I've always wondered if different species have their own spine-songs, so to speak. As a fun side-note, humans automatically speak in a major or minor key depending on whether their message is positive or negativr.
  • ... catches the earworm.

  • Surprised nobody has linked to this YouTube video of the thrush in the paper: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v... [youtube.com] Doesn't sound that much different from a lot of other birds that use similar intervals. e.g. Red winged blackbird and chickadee.
  • Humans discover they really have been copying the birds all along.

    • by Khyber ( 864651 )

      There was a video I watched on wimp.com that went over this exact same thing. Many birds in nature already naturally do minor and major scales. They compared many bird calls to various pieces of music and found many striking similarities.

  • Not sure whether that's free as in freedom or free as in lunch.

If I have not seen as far as others, it is because giants were standing on my shoulders. -- Hal Abelson

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