Birds 1

Birds 2

Birds 3

⌊ Natural Birds

    — Canary

    — Chicken

    — Cuckoo

    — Nightingale 1

    — Nightingale 2

    — Parrot

    — Pied Butcherbird 1

    — Pied Butcherbird 2

    — Pigeon

    — Song Thrush

    — Swallow

    — Talking Bird

    — Zebra Finch

Electronic Birds

Extinct Birds

Human Birds

Mechanical Birds

Loudspeaker Bird

Birds 1

Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680)

Musurgia Universalis (1650)

Athansius Kircher notates the different melodies sung by different birds in his manuscript Musurgia Universalis. Kircher strongly believed, that music is present in nature and therefore all birds are singing in musical intervals.

A rooster
B hen
C chick
D quail
E cuckoo

The parrot (without an identifying letter) is saying a greeting in Greek.

The Nightingale was also transcribed by Kircher in this book, in a much more detailed way: Nightingale 1

Birds 2

Johanna Kinkel (1810-1858)

Die Vogel-Kantate (1829)

In this cantata five different birds (a nightingale, a magpie, a cuckoo, a parrot and a raven) are rehearsing a song for the birthday of the king of births, the eagle. (The text underneath the bird-calls is a Twentieth Century addition to make the piece suitable for a wedding cantata.)

Birds 3

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

imitating several birds

Olivier Messiaen tried to translate the music of the birds into a music for human beings.


Paul Panhuysen (1934)

Canarie Studio (2005)

Paul Panhuysen: ‘You’re better off with the canaries than with the Brabants Orchestra. Canaries always want to be the best.` (Interview Jerry Hunt)
‘In a studio that is home to canaries, electroacoustic music emerges with the help of instruments. Microphones in different locations in the birdhouse create a specific electronic effect and present an individual sound. The complete set of sounds is centrally recorded and played back through speakers. The audience will hear changing soundscapes when slowly walking around the house. The birds are the musicians, and their song and ambient sounds help to create the music coming from the installation.’


Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644 – 1704)

Sonata Representativa (1669)

The composer von Biber clearly based parts of his Sonata Representativa on the chicken motives as prescribed by Athanasius Kircher in his book Musurgia Universalis (see also: Birds 1).


Sumer is icumen

mid-thirteenth Century

A manuscript from Reading Abbey dating from the mid-thirteenth century contains an early example of one of the many cuckoo songs. The typical cuckoo interval of a minor third is not used here though.

Middle English text

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med

And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes þu cuccu;

Ne swik þu nauer nu.

Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

(Translation into Modern English)

Summer has arrived,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag farts,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing,
Don’t ever you stop now,

Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!

Nightingale 1

Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680)

Musurgia Universalis (1650)

In this manuscript Athanasius Kircher writes down an elaborated score of the singing of a nightingale. He also notated other birds like a rooster and a hen: Birds 1.

Nightingale 2

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790)

‘Even a bird’s song, which we can reduce to no musical rule, seems to have more freedom in it, and thus to be richer for taste, than the human voice singing in accordance with all the rules that the art of music prescribes; for we grow tired much sooner of frequent and lengthy repetitions of the latter. Yet here most likely our sympathy with the mirth of a dear little creature is confused with the beauty of its song, for if exactly imitated by man (as has been sometimes done with the notes of the nightingale) it would strike our ear as wholly destitute of taste.’ (translation James Creed Meredith, 1911)


Klara Schilliger (1953) and Valerian Maly (1959)

Hello! (2005)

In this performance, instead of imitating the sounds of birds, Klara Schilliger and Valerian Maly tried to teach the parrots to talk like human beings. The words the two parrots should learn are:


At the end of the evening the parrots were unconvinced, still screaming without any recognizable human vowel.

Pied Butcherbird 1

David Lumsdaine (1931)

Pied Butcherbirds of Spirey Creek 11 (15/17 September 1983)

Composer David Lumsdaine makes soundscapes using recordings of the pied butcherbird in Australia. The singing of the pied butcherbird is lower and slower than the singing of other birds. Many people therefore perceive it as being very close to human singing.

Listen here to one of David Lumsdaine‘s recordings.

Pied Butcherbird 2

Emily Doolittle (1972)

Pied Butcherbird from music for magpies (2003)

Emily Doolittle has written several pieces featuring bird songs. In Pied Butcherbird she has transcribed a spectral analysis of the song of a pied butcherbird for viola da gamba with quartertone tuning.

Listen to Magpies


carved ivory book cover

circa 980, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

A dove is singing the Gregorian chants in the ear of pope Gregory, so he can notate them down. Three monks are copying these chants, all four are writing with a feather pen. The church tried to introduce in christianity the pagan myth, that humans learnt music from the birds.

Song Thrush

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

Song Thrush

Olivier Messiaen called himself on his business card composer, ornithologist and rhythmicist (compositeur de musique, ornithologue et rythmicien).


Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart (1739 – 1791)

Ideen zu einer Ästhetik der Tonkunst (1806)

‘Die Tonkunst ist so alt als die Welt. Man konnte ebenso wohl den Menschen ein
singendes Geschöpf als mit Aristoteles ein redendes Geschöpf nennen. Alle Menschen werden mit einer Anlage zum Gesang geboren…. Es ist also kindisch und ganz und gar gegen die Würde der Menschheit, wenn man mit einigen alten musikalischen Geschichtsschreibern annehmen wollte, der Mensch hätte das Singen von den Vögeln gelernt oder Musik sei nachahmende Kunst. Das ewige Einerlei des Vogelgesanges ist zu ermüdend, als dass die Menschen anders als in gewissen launigen Stunden auf die Nachahmung desselben verfallen konnten. Die Schwalbe auf unserer Dachrinne zwitschert noch heute wie zu Adams Zeiten;… Hingegen welche unendliche Veränderung hat die Tonkunst unter dem Menschengeschlechte erlitten!’

Talking Bird

Ute Wassermann (1960)

Birdtalking (2006)

After a street performance in Hong Kong Ute Wassermann explained the association of her vocal thrills and sound flows with bird voices to an astonished security guard. He mentioned than that in fact she was not singing but bird-talking.

Listen to an excerpt of the CD here.

Zebra Finch

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot (1961)

New Installation for the Curve in Barbican Centre 2010

Electronic Birds

Alvin Lucier (1931)

Bird and Person Dyning (1975)

A performance with binaural microphones, amplifiers, loudspeakers and electronic bird. The performer should walk in very slow motion, passing the bird and/or loudspeakers. Feedbacks will occur as well as several acoustic phenomena like heterodyning.

Extinct Birds

Wolfgang Müller

Séance Vocibus Avium 2008

For this project Wolfgang Müller asked several musicians to reconstruct the voices of extinct birds, with help of descriptions of the voices made by people who had heard the birds.

You can listen to some of the extinct birds here:
These are the extinct birds featured on the CD and the artists that brought their voices to life again:

Coturnix novae-zelandiae / Neuseeländische Schwarzbrustwachtel
(year of extinction 1875)

Max Müller:
Moho nobilis / Hawaii-Krausschwanz
(year of extinction 1934)

Frieder Butzmann:
Dryolimnas cuvieri abbotti / Assumption-Weißkehlralle
(year of extinction unknown)

Frederik Schikowski:
Rhodonessa caryophyllacea / Rosenkopfente
(year of extinction unknown)

Justus Köhncke:
Pterodroma hasitata caribbaea / Jamaika-Teufelssturmvogel
(year of extinction unknown)

Annette Humpe:
Alectroenas nitidissima / Mauritiusfruchttaube
(year of extinction 1930)

Francoise Cactus / Brezel Göring
Tympanuchus cupido cupido / Präriehuhn
(year of extinction 1932)

Nicholaus Bussmann
Sceloglaux albifacies / Weißwangenkauz
(year of extinction 1914)

Hartmut Andryczuk
Aplonis fuscus hullianus / Lord-Howe-Inselrasse des Norfolkstars
(year of extinction 1923)

Polyborus lutosus / Guadalupe-Cararara
(year of extinction 1900)

Kristbjörg Kjeld / Wolfgang Müller
Alca impennis / Riesenalk
(year of extinction 1844)

Human Birds

Marcus Coates (1968)

Dawn Chorus (2007)

Marcus Coates slowed the recordings of birds down, so they became not only slower but also on a pitch that is singable for humans. He than asked people to imitate this bird song and sped up the result again, getting human birds as a result.

Mechanical Birds

Matt Heckert (1957)

Birds (1999)

A sound installation of 26 identical sound machines called “Birds”. The focus in this installation is not on the sound of the voices of the birds, but on the sounds of their flapping wings.

Loudspeaker Bird

Christina Kubisch (1948)

The Royal Tree (2006)

Christina Kubisch uses solar cells to control the electronic sounds, diffused by loudspeakers hung in the tree. As real birds, these loudspeaker birds start to sing, as soon as the sun starts shining. She mentions that although the loudspeaker birds are clearly producing electronic sounds, real birds often start to communicate with their electronic counterparts.

Listen to loudspeaker birds


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