What Is Birdsong?

Das Vogelkonzert (The Bird Concert) by Jan Brueghel the Younger, c. 1640-1645 via Wikimedia Commons

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Every Good Bird Does Fine

Is birdsong music, speech, or something else altogether? The question has raged for millennia, drawing in everyone from St. Augustine to Virginia Woolf.

To some extent, we all know music when we hear it: a melody, a rhythm, a progression of individual notes that, taken together, elevates the whole into the realm of auditory art. Like any art form, we define it partly by the method of its construction—a painting is painted, a song sung—and also by its effect on us. If something sounds like music, it is. But what about songs sung by non-humans? Is birdsong music?

The question isn’t new. As far back as Aristotle, philosophers, scientists, and musicologists have argued over the musicality of the avian world. Medieval writers often dismissed birdsong as “vox inarticulata,” a category of sounds that may be enjoyable but lack meaning or intention. Meaning and intention were, to them, the exclusive domain of humanity and God. St. Augustine agreed, claiming that birds lacked the rationality necessary for true creation. When birds were associated with a “true” voice in European art and literature, it was often as the voices of angels, themselves depicted with the feathered wings of birds…

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