Cornish Faculty Part of Study of Pitch Relationships in Bird Song

Seattle, WA & Vienna, Austria – In articles published this month, researchers from the Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle, WA, Philipps University of Marburg, Germany, and University of Vienna, Austria, demonstrated that the songs of the hermit thrush follow principles found in much human music. This research is the first to demonstrate note selection from the harmonic series occurs in the “song” of a non-human animal. The study, published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA (PNAS), is particularly relevant to the ongoing nature/nurture debate about whether musical traits, such pitch relationships, are biologically or culturally driven. 

“We need to be careful not to just project sound structures we are familiar with on to animal songs,” said Emily Doolittle, an assistant professor of music at Cornish College of the Arts who worked on the study.  “But if we avoid looking at pitch relationships entirely, than we are missing out an an important way to understand the songs.”

Since the early 20th-century, various scientists have claimed that hermit thrush song follows the same principles found in human musical systems, but these were anecdotal reports which were not supported by rigorous analysis. However, the new study released this week shows that this North American songbird does use notes that are generally related by simple integer proportions similar to that found in human music. Moreover, the notes used in each song are mostly drawn from the same overtone series, meaning that they are multiples of the same underlying frequency.

To arrive at this conclusion, Doolittle and Tecumseh Fitch of the University of Vienna analyzed high-quality recordings of the songs of 14 male hermit thrushes. Bruno Gingras, University of Vienna, and Dominik Endres, Philipps University of Marburg, then used two different statistical methods to demonstrate that the notes of the hermit thrush song were, in most cases, simple integer multiples of a base frequency, corresponding to an overtone series. The authors controlled for other possible explanations, such as the possibility that hermit thrushes could select notes using the resonances of their vocal tract in a manner similar to wind instruments like the alphorn. However, their results strongly suggest that hermit thrushes actively select the pitches they sing.

Further research is needed to explain why hermit thrushes choose to sing pitches whose relationship follows the harmonic series. One possibility, mentioned by the researchers, is that female hermit thrushes may evaluate a male’s singing accuracy by its ability to follow the overtone series. Another possibility is that, like humans, hermit thrushes find it easier to remember or process pitches that follow the overtone series.

Taking into account other recent studies, such as the finding that newly hatched domestic chicks show a preference for consonant intervals, this report lends support to the idea that some features of human musical systems may be based, at least in part, on biological principles that are shared with other animals. The current results are thus especially relevant in the context of the longstanding debate regarding the origins of human musical preferences.

“A number of my compositions are inspired by bird or other animal songs, in various different ways,” said Doolittle. “I’m fascinated by the fact that bird and other animal songs are created by other living beings that are making choices about what they sing, but with minds so different than our own. Writing music based on animal song is, for me, a way of trying to understand the world from a perspective completely different than my own.”

Publication Details

Emily L. Doolittle, Bruno Gingras, Dominik M. Endres, W. Tecumseh Fitch (2014). Overtone-based pitch selection in hermit thrush song: Unexpected convergence with scale construction in human music.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). XX November 2014.


More about Emily Doolittle

Composer Emily Doolittle studied at Dalhousie University (B.M., 1995), the Koninklijk Conservatorium in the Hague (Eerste Fase, 1998), Indiana University (M.M., 1999) and Princeton (Ph.D., 2007). She has written for Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, the Albany Symphony, Ensemble Contemporain de Montréal, the Motion Ensemble and Meduse, and soloists including sopranos Janice Jackson, Patricia Green and Helen Pridmore, pianists Rachel Iwaasa and Ruth Rose, viola d’amorist Thomas Georgi and viola da gambist Karin Preslmayr. Her doctoral research was on the relationship between bird and other animal songs and human music, a field in which she continues to be active. Other interests include the traditional music of various cultures, community music-making, and music as a vehicle for social change. 

More about Cornish College of the Arts

Begun in 1914, Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, WA, offers Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees in Art, Dance, Design, Performance Production and Theater, a Bachelor of Music degree and an Artist Diploma in Early Music. Since its beginning, the College’s founder Nellie Cornish, and the many teaching artists who followed her, believed in education through exposure to all the arts. This approach continues to inform the College’s curriculum and community involvement today. The College is accredited by the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges, and the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.