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My thoughts and feelings about 'birdsong'.

Sally Whitham-Shaw
Sally Whitham-Shaw

I love nature. I love birds. I love birdsong.

There is nothing better than going into the garden, or countryside, and hearing a blackbird or a robin, a chaffinch or a goldfinch, a sparrow or a song thrush. There are many more birds I could quote, and there are so many lovely songs. Some are complex, and others simpler and more repetitive, but they all have a beauty of their own. Birdsong makes me feel at peace. It makes me feel good. It touches something inside me.

I have an old bench in my garden and inscribed on that bench is a verse from Dorothy Frances Gurney’s poem ‘God’s Garden’.

"The kiss of the sun for pardon, the song of the birds for mirth;
One is nearer God's heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth."

It is thought that Gurney (1858-1932) wrote the poem in the 1920’s. She was a religious woman, an Anglican and then converted to Catholicism in 1919. I am not a religious person, but I can see why she relates the garden to a 'higher being'. There is something very spiritual about the out-of-doors.

So, interestingly when it comes to the pigeon and doves, we don’t describe their call as ‘song’. We tend to say the ‘coo’ of a dove. I wonder why that is? Is it because it is so simple that we don’t feel that we can call it a ‘song’ or a ‘melody’? Another interesting bird call is the crow. Again, it’s very simple, but it’s also harsh, not so nice to our ears. We it the ‘caw’ of a crow. As for magpies it’s like a cackle, somewhat aggressive and loud still interesting. But nothing like ‘song’.

So why do we call the communication of any birds.. ‘birdsong’? It’s hardly a song as we know it, a song that we can repeat like the latest pop song. It’s a collection of notes and rhythm, so perhaps it’s a melody? Google Dictionary describes a song as:- ‘a short poem or other set of words set to music’ ... or melody as:- ‘A sequence of single notes that are musically satisfying. A tune’.

As birds don’t use words perhaps ‘bird melody’ is a more appropriate term, but it doesn’t sound right though does it!! I like the term ‘birdsong’ even if it’s not quite correct.

The French composer Messiaen (1908-1992) also loved birdsong. So much so that he would sit for hours transcribing bird calls, writing them down as musical notes and rhythms. So, I suppose they then became what we would call melodies, if in fact they were an absolute replica of what he heard. Perhaps they were more like a human translation of birdsong.

But Messiaen didn’t use the exact transcriptions in his works. He used them for inspiration. Take for instance his work ‘Oiseaux Exotiques”, a work for piano and small orchestra. It is said that he transcribed recordings of a variety of exotic birds, but I can’t really believe you can hear the call of the Gracula or the Mockingbird, or any of the other birds that he transcribed. But it doesn't matter that he used poetic licence. He was using the birdsong as an impetus for his composition. It’s an interesting work. It’s about 15 minutes long and it does give the feel of birdsong in ways. For me it’s more the rhythms that are suggestive of birds rather than the notes. I can’t say I like the work. Its use of alternative harmonic systems doesn’t sit well with me. After 5 minutes I’m reeling from the dissonance and I don’t find his melodies ‘musically satisfying’. Bird song is so calming and beautiful that I feel that Messiaen is somehow doing the birds a disservice. But it is an inspired work, and he is a composer I greatly admire, even though generally I don’t like listening to his music.

Which brings me back to the birds and what really matters to me. Whatever we call their sounds…. Whether it be ‘song’, or ‘call’ or ‘caw’ or ‘coo’…. I love listening to them all.