An international collaboration between birdsong scientists and musicians has found a similarity between the way songbirds and humans compose music, according to a study published last Friday.
Along with colleagues from the University of California, San Diego, Dr. Hollis Taylor, ARC Fellow at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, found that the order of Australian pied butcherbirds’ song elements is strongly associated with their rhythmical timing.
Published in Royal Society Open Science, the study suggests that songbirds could be processing syntactic-rhythmic relationships in a manner similar to that of humans.
“Previously, songbird research has been dominated by studies of song syntax, or how song elements are ordered. Song rhythm, on the other hand, is relatively understudied,” says Taylor. “We know that if you provide a regular musical beat to children with communication disorders, their grammatical skills improve. To our knowledge, rarely has anyone thought about how syntax and rhythm might be related in birdsong.”
The researchers recorded and analyzed solo songs of three wild Australian pied butcherbirds, each with unique repertoires and residing in different geographical locations.
“Overall three individual birds, we observed that pied butcherbird song rhythms were categorically organized at the note level,” writes main study author Jeffery Xing.
Birdsong science better understood using music theory
The team found that the order of song elements in the butcherbird songs shares a predictive relationship with how those elements are rhythmically timed.
Furthermore, when the length of the song elements is controlled, they found that this predictive relationship is retained. Their findings suggest that the interactions between syntax and rhythm in these songs are not the result of simply producing song elements of different sequence lengths.
This research indicates that birdsong science can be better understood using music theory.
“Birdsong scholars have primarily studied song syntax via information theory, which originates in mathematics and is more concerned with the encoding of discrete symbols than temporally-continuous bio-acoustic signals. This has led to a rich and useful research literature on birdsong syntax, but other aspects of songbird behavior have been neglected,” says Taylor.
“Birdsong scholars have primarily studied song syntax via information theory, which originates in mathematics and is more concerned with the encoding of discrete symbols than temporally-continuous bio-acoustic signals. This has led to a rich and useful research literature on birdsong syntax, but other aspects of songbird behavior have been neglected."Dr. Hollis Taylor