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Almost Human

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Or, are humans almost bird-like?

By Josie Glausiusz


 

A bird known as the Musician Wren, or uirapuru, is believed to bring love, happiness, and fortune. Because of this superstition, storekeepers in the Amazon—the bird’s home territory—commonly kill it, stuff it, and bury the body at their door to attract customers.

This is unfortunate, especially since the little brown wren—a furtive native of the rainforests of Brazil, Guyana, Suriname, Peru, Colombia, and other countries in the region—sings a song of such dulcet and pure tones that it sounds almost human. French composer Olivier Messiaen, who wove the wren’s melodies into his 1964 wind-and-percussion piece Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum (“And I wait for the resurrection of the dead”), characterized the uirapuru’s song as “mysterious, fluted with a magical timbre.” The Musician Wren’s song bears so close a resemblance to Western classical music because it has virtually the same structure and interval spacing.

Emily Doolittle, a Canadian-American composer at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, and Henrik Brumm of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, listened to about 50 recordings of the Musician Wren, known in Latin as Cyphorhinus arada. With the aid of sound-analyzing software, they discovered that the wren’s song uses “perfect consonant intervals” (octaves, perfect fifths, and perfect fourths) considered to be “stable or restful,” and which are found in many different musical cultures, including Indian music and the music of the ancient Greeks. “This is the first time that a bird has been shown to preferentially sing perfect consonant intervals … which are also favored in many human cultures,” Doolittle wrote to me in an email.

Doolittle, whose bird-song-blended works have been performed by the Bavarian State Opera, assures me that the uirapuru is not yet endangered, as its habitat covers a very wide area, much of which is sparsely populated by humans. Nevertheless, she hopes that her research and her music inspire people to dedicate more effort to preserving the wren’s habitat. “We humans, especially in the west, have a long habit of thinking of ourselves as completely different than other animals. A lack of recognition of the inherent worth of other species is partly what allows us to be so destructive of the environment,” she writes. “But to find shared interval choices between humans and even one other species means that our musical taste is not something unique that separates us from other animals, but rather something that connects us with another species.”

Josie Glausiusz has written about every topic known to science, from physics to furry animals, for magazines that include Nature, National Geographic, Scientific American Mind, Discover, New Scientist, and Wired. She is the co-author of Buzz: The Intimate Bond Between Humans and Insects.

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