Birdsong: There’s rhythm & news in this research project

Inca Dove. This bird species’ coos (and dozens more) have been converted into musical notation.
Copyright William F. Walker,

When Nat Wheelwright listens to birdsong, he hears information—what a bird is communicating to a potential mate, rival, or eavesdropper. Robby Greenlee hears colors, rhythms, and melodies. They may not be birds of a feather, but the two Bowdoin College professors—one an ornithologist and the other a composer and music theorist—are teaming up to transcribe and analyze a variety of birdsongs. In the process they hope to uncover new evolutionary and musical insights.

To launch their project this past summer, they enlisted John Butterworth, a Bowdoin student and jazz saxophonist, to transcribe into musical notations more than 50 dove and pigeon coos from recordings contained in the vast digital collection of the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology. They eventually hope to move on to other bird species, such as Baltimore orioles and brown creepers, but they wanted to start with relatively simple vocalizations. “It’s extremely difficult to transcribe, because birds do such complex things,” Greenlee says.

An American naturalist named F. Schuyler Mathews may have been the first to attempt to put birdsongs into western notations in his 1907 guide, Field Book of Wild Birds and their Music. “He gave up when he got to the bobolink because it got way too complicated,” Wheelwright says. “His biology [in this book] is pretty bad, and he didn’t get the ecology,” Wheelwright says. “I think because it was a failed experiment in terms of being useful scientifically, it gave transcription to western symbols a bad name. I’m not aware of anyone who’s done it since.”

But Wheelwright and Greenlee saw a need for their transcription project after co-teaching a popular course called “Bird Song, Human Song,” which explored similarities in both kinds of music. Students learned everything from the mechanics and endocrinology of sound production to an appreciation for how the mourning dove’s syncopated coos match the refrain from The Beatles’ “She Loves You.”

“In that class we were asking more questions than we could answer,” Greenlee says. “We realized that nobody had explored this from a scholarly or academic perspective,” adds Wheelwright. “I’m not really aware of a collaboration like this between a musician and a biologist.”

Click here for a link to a recording of an Emerald Dove (Chalocophaps indica) from the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Below is the Emerald Dove transcription by Greenlee, Wheelwright, and Butterworth:

Musical notation based on Emerald Dove. Greenlee notes: “”Meter is 4/4, and pitches are approximately G-F#-G, or later in the coo, G-G-Ab. Most notable is the use of articulation (a short note, indicated by a dot above the note) to assist in establishing a meter.”
The top figure is an oscillogram and shows amplitude (loudness) of different notes. The one below, aligned in time, is a sound spectrogram or sonogram, showing frequency (pitch), including harmonics and other overtones (which give a sound its distinctive timbre).

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