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Relative Pitch and the Song of Black-Capped Chickadees

Chickadees, like people, have a strong sense of relative pitch. These birds use skillful, precise pitch changes to advertise their quality and attract mates

Ron Weisman, Laurene Ratcliffe

More than 2,000 years ago, the acerbic philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero observed that Roman songbirds compose more excellent melodies than any musician. He certainly doesn't stand alone in history on that count; it is a nearly universal human experience to find joy and wonder in birdsong—and to compare the songs to human music. People have been transcribing melodies of birds into the notation of music since at least the 18th century; Vivaldi's Goldfinch concerto and Handel's Cuckoo and the Nightingale organ concerto include musical notation for birdsongs. In the early 1900s, the New England naturalist and composer F. Schuyler Mathews presented the songs of many North American birds in musical notation in his Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music in order to help readers identify species common in the eastern United States.

Later biologists did not share Mathews's enthusiasm for musical descriptions of birdsongs. Donald Borror, a master bioacoustician and field biologist, found many of the song descriptions inadequate by modern standards, as he wrote in his foreword to the 1967 reprinting of Mathews's book. Borror acknowledged that Mathews lacked modern electronic equipment and that his primary interest was in the musical content of birdsongs. Today, however, Mathews's approach seems dated and quaint. Musical notation is simply unable to provide the detailed, accurate and reproducible descriptions required in modern bioacoustical analyses of vocal communication among songbirds. Mathews's approach helps musically trained people recognize birdsongs, but it fails to objectively describe birdsongs and calls. For bioacousticians, accurate observations are a crucial first step in analyzing the role of songs in the life of a species.

Black-capped chickadeesClick to Enlarge Image

Modern ornithologists believe that songbirds first appeared some 40 million to 50 million years before human beings. That people derive pleasure from birdsongs and recognize their musical features suggests that despite the vast evolutionary gulf between birds and mammals, songbirds and humans share some common auditory perceptual abilities. In this article, we focus on relative pitch, the ability to recognize relationships between acoustic frequencies. We review studies suggesting that humans and songbirds share the ability to perceive relative pitch changes and exploring the evolutionary functions of birds' perception and use of relative pitch.





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