Brain Pickings

Why Birds Sing


Science vs. romance, or how evolutionary theory holds up against poetry and philosophy.

In How Music Works, David Byrne cites some scientifically controversial theories suggesting that music is a spontaneous rather than adaptive phenomenon and birds sing simply because they enjoy singing. At the front lines of the joy theory of bird song is new-age philosopher and jazz musician David Rothenberg, who argues that bird song has the formal properties of music and, just like human music, is motivated by pleasure — another manifestation of the emotional lives of animals. In the preface to his 2006 book Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into the Mystery of Birdsong (public library; UK), Rothenberg writes:

As a philosopher, I have long been wrapped in the question of what humanity must do to find a home in the natural world. The seemingly innocent topic of bird song shows us that we need a combination of many visions of nature to make sense of the whole. … I hope to inspire more scientists and musicians in engaged interaction with the natural world.

In 2007, BBC set out to pit the two leading explanations evolutionary biologists have of why birds sing — to attract mates and repel rivals — against Rothenberg’s theories of pleasure-driven bird song. The result is this fascinating documentary, available online in its entirety, with some delightful surprise-cameos by Beth Orton, Jarvis Cocker, Laurie Anderson, and other celebrated musicians, artists and poets.

Why shouldn’t they be singing for pleasure? Who are we to assume that this kind of animal doesn’t experience joy?

Whether or not your fully subscribe to Rothenberg’s theories, his book comes with a twelve-track music compilation, which alone is more than worth it — a mesmerizing mashup of natural birdsong and virtuosic instrumentation.

Animal Madness @wendymac

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