New research finds mockingbirds more musical than we thought

Gammon, a professor of biology, co-authored an interdisciplinary paper that was recently published in Frontiers in Psychology.

A paper recently published in Frontiers in Psychology and co-authored by Professor of Biology Dave Gammon argues that the mockingbird, one of the American birds with the most complex of songs, uses musical techniques familiar to composers from many kinds of human music.

Dave Gammon, professor of biology

The three authors, combining perspectives from biology, neuroscience, and music, demonstrate that mockingbirds use four compositional strategies to create their melodious song. Timbre change, pitch change, stretch and squeeze allow these birds to transition from one sound to the next in ways that tickle the ears of both songbirds and humans.

“We’ve long known that the mockingbird mimics other bird songs,” says co-author Professor David Rothenberg of the New Jersey Insitute of Technology, “but for some reason, no researchers have tried to articulate the interesting ways this bird combines all the imitations that he knows. We decided to call it morphing.”

Gammon is among the world’s experts in identifying which species the mockingbird imitates. And it is he who suggested comparing the mockingbird morphs to human music, choosing examples from Beethoven, Huun-huur-tu, Disney’s Frozen 2, and Kendrick Lamar’s album “Damn.”

“It’s all fine to propose the bird is doing something,” says lead author Tina Roeske of the Max Planck Institute of Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt. “But for science, we must analyze the data to show that our assertions fit the data.” She designed the algorithms that tested the paper’s hypotheses.

The paper, and all its data, are free to view in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology. The video below, which features birds recorded on Elon’s campus, demonstrates how this bird makes such special music out of the songs of so many other birds in his habitat.

“Charles Darwin wrote that birds have a natural aesthetic sense,” says Rothenberg. “That’s why they evolved such beautiful songs. It takes the full range of human forms of knowledge to figure out what they are up to. Not one of us could have done this research alone.”