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What humans can learn from birdsong
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What humans can learn from birdsong

After BBC Radio 4's Singing With the Nightingale, Ivan Hewett explores the age-old mystery and fascination of birdsong

11:10AM BST 20 May 2014

This week the BBC has revived a pioneering natural history programme from the earliest days of radio broadcasting. Ninety years ago a small army of BBC engineers visited the Surrey garden of cellist Beatrice Harrison, to record her performance of Danny Boy. Why the garden, rather than a more sensible, sound-proofed studio? Because Harrison had noticed that whenever she practised there the nightingales seemed to join in, and persuaded Lord Reith, the BBC’s first Director-General, that this would sound charming on the radio. He authorised the experiment, and it turned out to be a hit. The duet of human and bird was recreated every year until 1942, but since then has been in abeyance. Now it has been recreated once again, with a folk singer, violinist and cellist performing in a bird-filled garden.

It’s comforting, to think that humans and birds can sing together in harmony. It restores our sense that we still belong to nature, instead of peering at it from the outside. Of course it’s only a fantasy. There’s a colossal gulf between human song and that of birds, which is easily explained. One is nature, the other is nurture. To put it bluntly: we sing in tune, and they don’t – even if sometimes they appear to. I can remember an astonishing spring morning last year when the first phrase of “Happy Birthday” leaped cheerfully from a tree somewhere in our garden. But the blackbird, if it was a blackbird, didn’t really have that tune in mind, and in any case the rendition was hardly note-perfect. There was a fleeting resemblance, which my brain seized on, and filled in the missing bits. Hearing tunes in bird-song is like seeing shapes in clouds. The illusion only works for a second. In 2012 a scientist proved all this, by measuring the intervals of bird-song and showing they don’t correspond to any known human scale.


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