recording of a nightingale singing, recorded by the author:
Why does birdsong sound so beautiful to us?
Everyone loves to listen to birdsong, but have you ever wondered why?
To other birds, birdsong doesn’t sound beautiful – it’s full of either self-advertisement – “Look at me, I would be a fantastic mate for you” or venom and vitriol and swearing – “Keep away, this is my blank blank blank territory”
For a long time I found myself wondering why birdsong should sound to great to us. The question I always want to ask about these matters is, what’s the evolutionary benefit we would get from finding it so mesmeric when for the birds it’s a very serious expression of life-and-death struggle for survival and reproduction?
I can think of a number of possible answers. As an ancient species out in the wild without wristwatches and calendars, birdsong for us would be one useful indicator of time of day and of the progression of the seasons. It would also be an indicator of potential food opportunity – and of potential danger when alarm calls are sounded. Plentiful birdsong may have indicated that we nomads are in a wildlife-productive area that may make it worthwhile to hang around for a while. Birdsong in general is one of the strong sensory experiences that draws us into the world of nature and wildness to which we’re still so primordially connected.
But there must be more to it than this – it doesn’t really explain the auditory beauty aspect – and there is. Biologists at McGill University in Montreal have recently discovered that songbirds and humans have very similar biological hardwiring in the brain that shapes how we each produce and perceive sounds. Young birds, they’ve found, are intrinsically predisposed to learn certain particular kinds of sound pattern over others, and these favoured patterns happen to resemble those found most frequently in human speech and in human music too.
These common brain mechanisms or ‘universals’ had already been demonstrated by linguistic experts as occurring across all human languages. Naom Chomsky postulated that these constitute a ‘universal grammar’ which aids language learning in the individual as well as communication across language and cultural barriers. But the direct link to the same patterns in birdsong is new.
So when we listen to birdsong we’re connecting directly to the ancient common linguistic forms that our innate brain wiring recognises. And the more of these universal patterns a bird weaves into the song – as with blackbird, nightingale or song-thrush – the more spellbound we become.