Bye Bye, Blackbird

Birds in music

It’s spring again and time for a bird-lover to have her say. When I am woken (very) early in the morning, by the blackbird, the robin and other vocal birds, this cacophony of sounds, notes, voices and resonances that buzz, chirp, trill, beat, scream, whistle makes me smile involuntarily. Listen to the song “Grantchester Meadows” from the Pink Floyd album “Ummagumma” , which begins with the song of a lark. Then you will have an idea of what I mean. (By the way, I recommend listening to the song all the way to the end).

I was inspired to write this article by Beatrix Saadi-Varchim’s essay on the music of birds1, which began with the question: “Why do birds actually sing?“ Biologists found out that it is mainly about territorial demarcation, issuing warnings and males courting females. Okay, this knowledge is well-known and is already taught in school. In addition, however, ornithologists also suspect that birds sometimes sing just for fun. Don’t ask me how they figured that out. But I can well imagine that the two most versatile performers in our bird kingdom, the blackbird and the nightingale, do occasionally self-indulge in their own singing.

This enthusiasm for the audible acoustic variety is probably what has moved composers of all musical genres to imitate the sounds of nature through instruments or to integrate birdsong into their compositions. To bring you closer to these phenomena in music, I have enthusiastically searched and found “songs” and compiled them into a Spotify playlist2. I found a lot, and I’m still finding more. There’s probably something for every reader from classical music from long ago to the present, from jazz to rock and pop. And there is much more to discover. So if you go searching yourself and find songs, please post the links in the comments. I will then add them to the playlist. This way there will be a variety that takes polyphonic nature into account.

I would like to highlight a few songs and compositions that particularly impress me.

For example, there is “Peter and the Wolf” op. 67, the 1936 musical fairy tale by Sergei Prokofiev, which I was passionate about as a child, and my daughter shared this enthusiasm when she was a child. All the animals and acting characters are represented by instruments. Thus, the flute “chirps” like a little bird and the oboe “quacks” like a duck.

Another example, unfamiliar to some listeners, is the 2005 album “Why Birds Sing” by jazz musician and philosopher David Rothenberg, who recorded original sounds and freely improvised to them. “I’m interested in using music to learn more about the natural world,”3 he explains in an interview. He remains true to that till today.

Camille Saint-Saens’ 1886 suite for chamber orchestra, “The Carnival of the Animals,” is familiar to many. The composer taught briefly at a music school. When musical parodies were on the curriculum there, he was persuaded to write a humorous piece about animals. Saint-Saens did not have it performed during his lifetime because he was concerned that the piece was not serious enough for the public. Less well known, but equally brilliant, is Edward Elgar’s “Owls,” a miniature song, Op 53, No. 4. When I hear it, I think of a pair of owls in courtship (usually in winter!).

Let’s move on to one of my favourite birds, the blackbird. Olivier Messiaen set a memorial to it in 1951 with his Chamber Music for Flute and Piano, which I can listen to over and over again. Fascinated by birds, Messiaen roamed the countryside from the age of 18, noting bird calls. Beginning in 1950, birds became an important focus of his compositional output, which is why it is called his “bird decade.” He crowned this enthusiasm with the thirteen-part piano cycle “Catalogue d’oiseaux“, in which he incorporated 77 bird calls, partly defamiliarised because slowed down excessively. For orientation, he wrote the name of the bird in the appropriate places, sometimes even adding places, times of year and day.

The song “Blackbird” is a Beatles evergreen, in which the band also incorporated the original song of a blackbird. But do you know the virtuoso guitar solo by the recently deceased Jeff Beck of the same name, in which he duets with a blackbird?

From Miles Davis and John Coltrane there is the recording “Bye Bye Blackbird” (original by Jerome H. Remick and Ray Henderson from 1926) from the legendary album “Round About Midnight” from 1957. Five years later John Coltrane gave the same name to his live album and shone with an extended version of the song. And the original bird you can hear on the album “Wonderful Morning“, a Sound of The Earth – production.

In 2020, when all the world disappeared into lockdown, the Birdsong Project was born, the second inspiration for this article. The collection “is a collection of 172 pieces of new music inspired by the beauty of birdsong, performed by artists from across the musical spectrum.”4 In all, 220 artists, including well-known actors, literary figures, and visual artists, came together to celebrate the joy that birds bring to our lives. Read more at

And to end the article, note that there are, of course, many children’s songs about birds, such as (catchy tune alert!) ” Alle Vögel sind schon da…”. And a particularly nice version of various children’s bird songs is by Bodo Wartke, which I didn’t put on the playlist because it’s much more moving as a YouTube video6.

I could still write about many birds and their music, e.g. the nightingale, the cuckoo or the oriole. I will continue to do so, perhaps in August when most of the birds fall silent again. Now I would like to invite you to immerse ourselves into the world of birds and music, a world of diversity and creativity. The playlist is an offer, and the invitation stands: add to it however you like, only the songs should fit the topic. Have fun with it.

1 vogelgetwitter
2 And here is the playlist I put together: Spotify birds
3 A conversation with David Rothenberg; Ode with a Nightingale and a Thrush and a Lyrebird, by Claudia Dreifus: NYT 20.09.2005
4 The birdsong project
5 Spotify playlist For the Birds
6 Bodo Wartke, The Bird Catcher


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