do birds respond to music

I love birds of all kind. I have several books about them (sadly I dont have one). I was wondering… I saw many videos on YouTube or Vimeo where birds (especially parrots) seem to really enjoy music and some of them do a little dance to the music. Cockatoos even “headbang” to some music. What are your thoughts? Do your pet birds enjoy music? Does it sooth them or perk them up? Archived post. New comments cannot be posted and votes cannot be cast.

An Ear for Detail

A sound waveform can be described at two different levels: envelope and fine structure. The waveform’s amplitude fluctuates slowly to form the envelope, while the waveform’s frequency and amplitude fluctuate quickly to form the fine structure. Put differently, a sound’s millisecond-to-millisecond fluctuations constitute its fine structure. Because fine structure is not easily visible in sonograms or spectrograms, which are helpful in helping people visualize song, fine structure has historically been overlooked by many researchers studying birdsong. However, these subtle acoustic details can be seen by focusing on the waveform of a single song syllable.

Robert Dooling of the University of Maryland helped to pioneer the study of fine structure in birdsong. For decades he and his colleagues have been working to assess birds’ ability to detect it. In a pivotal study published in 2002, they tested birds and humans on distinguishing sounds that differed only in fine structure. All the bird species they tested—Zebra Finches, Domestic Canaries and Budgerigars—performed much better than the humans did. The birds were able to hear differences in fine structure two to three times smaller than those the human subjects could detect. The exact physiological mechanism underlying the birds’ superhuman sensitivity remains unknown, but it may be related to features of their inner ears, which differ from our inner ears in having a relatively shorter cochlea that is slightly curved rather than coiled.

do birds respond to music

I didn’t give fine structure much thought when I started comparing birdsong to human language in 2015 while I was a graduate student at the University of Maryland. Rather, my goal was to identify grammatical skills akin to those of language in birds. However, after researching this issue further and working with birds in numerous experiments, I realized that these minute acoustic details—rather than the order in which they occur—may hold the secret to comprehending what they are trying to convey through song.

The Zebra Finch emerged victorious among the birds examined in Dooling’s 2002 study. Due in part to its ability to sing and breed copiously in captivity, this small, lively songbird native to Australia is the most popular species for lab-based modern birdsong research. Its song, which is only performed by men, is likewise fairly simple, with only one motif—three to eight syllables—repeated repeatedly, usually in the same order. Because of its simplicity, this song is easier to study than others. One might assume that both levels of the song are significant in perception because the boys learn the syllables and the order in which they occur from a tutor, usually their father.

We tested that notion in a 2018 study that examined how well Zebra Finches hear the difference between natural song motifs and motifs where syllables are either temporally reversed or shuffled in sequence. We trained birds to report whether they could hear the difference between sounds. They listened to a repeated sound and then pushed a button to initiate a trial where the sound either changed or remained the same. If a bird pecked a certain button when the sound was different, it counted as a correct hit, and the bird got a food reward. If it pecked that button when the sound was the same, the lights in the chamber went off, and it counted as a guess. Using this method, we evaluated the birds’ ability to discriminate between the repeating sound (the natural song motif) and novel sounds (motifs whose syllables we had temporally reversed or shuffled). From the birds’ perspective, they were simply trying to earn tasty food.

Fascinatingly, the Zebra Finches did a poor job of differentiating between shuffled syllables, which are more noticeable to us, and reversed syllables, which can be challenging for human ears to distinguish. Fine structure is one of the main things that changes when a syllable is reversed, so it is not surprising that the birds excelled at that exercise. However, it is surprising that they have trouble with sequence differences because the males learn to produce song syllables in specific sequences, in addition to the fact that humans can easily hear those changes. Due to their inability to perceive shuffled syllables, sequence may be important for these songbirds during their learning process but not for communication.

Considering the outcomes of these experiments involving synthetic music, my colleagues and I started to consider the relevance of fine-structure perception for natural song communication. Although it’s amazing to hear reversed syllables, the birds never really make these noises. Thus, we next inquired as to how well birds perceive minute acoustic variations in song.

My colleagues had already shown in another 2018 paper that Zebra Finches can hear tiny differences in the fine structure of one another’s calls, which can carry information about sex and individual identity. To examine their perception of fine structure in song, we took advantage of the fact that Zebra Finch song bouts consist of a single motif repeated over and over with the same syllables in the same order—or at least researchers think of them as the same. In truth, there are small differences in how a given syllable is uttered in each rendition of the motif. We tested the finches’ ability to discriminate between different renditions of motif syllables and found that the birds can hear the differences easily.

This finding indicates that while the Zebra Finch song may seem repetitive to humans, the birds do not perceive it that way. We speculate that, rather than what our ears can hear, they may be picking up a wealth of information about emotion, health, age, personal identity, and other topics from the intricate structure of music. It makes sense that other birds with repetitive songs would be able to sense things similarly to the Zebra Finch.

You might be wondering whether these small acoustic fluctuations in song are just accidental or random, like variations in the trajectory of a pitcher’s curveball toward home plate. In fact, the key to fine structure may be the avian voice box. Humans produce the sounds that we shape into speech with our mouths and tongues using a single source at the top of our neck, the organ known as the larynx. Birds, in contrast, produce sound using a unique two-branched structure that sits atop the lungs called the syrinx. It carries two sources of sound, one from each branch, that can be controlled independently. On top of that, muscles in the songbird syrinx contract faster than any other vertebrate muscle, enabling millisecond-level temporal control. Thus, the birds aren’t producing fine acoustic variation by a slip of the beak—they can control it in addition to perceiving it.

do birds respond to music

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What, though, do the birds think of all these characteristics and how does birdsong sound to them? Recent studies by my colleagues and me, as well as work by an increasing number of other scientists worldwide, have shown that birdsong sequences sound different to birds than they do to humans. Furthermore, it seems that birds pay closer attention to the subtle acoustic details in the chips and twangs of their songs that are inaudible to humans rather than the melodies that grab our attention.

Researchers studying bird song have known that birds perceive song differently than humans do since at least the 1960s. Playback experiments are a traditional method of testing birds’ perception in the wild. Researchers play songs to the birds and record the birds’ behavioral response. When a typical song of their species is played back, many birds react as though there had been a territorial intrusion. They fly around the source of the sound, approach the speaker from which the song is playing, and make their own threatening calls or songs. Through comparing responses to synthetic and natural music, researchers can determine which aspects of perception are crucial. Before the invention of computers, people would record songs on tape recorders and then physically splice the magnetic tape together to create altered songs that included things like rearranged syllables or shorter silences between notes. These days, creating such manipulations is much simpler thanks to digital recording equipment and sound-editing software.

In one classic playback study in the 1970s, Stephen T. Emlen of Cornell University studied song perception in the Indigo Bunting. The vibrantly blue males of this species deliver songs consisting of syllables that they almost always utter two at a time. Ornithological field guides often call attention to this pattern of paired syllables when describing the song, and it is easily seen in a spectrogram, a visual depiction of song that shows the frequency and amplitude of its signal over time. (The perceptual equivalent of frequency is pitch, and that of amplitude is loudness.) Despite the prominence of the paired pattern to human ears and eyes, when Emlen played a modified song with unpaired syllables to the birds, they reacted with the same intensity of territorial response they exhibited when they heard the natural paired song. This result means that, despite its salience to us, the pattern of paired notes is not significant for the birds in terms of recognizing fellow species members. If the Indigo Bunting were to write a field guide description of its own song, it would differ considerably from our assessment.

do birds respond to music

Although it has limitations, observing how birds interpret song in the wild is an important task. For example, when you want to start your experiment, a bird could be out of sight hunting. More control and precision can be used when testing birds’ hearing in a lab setting. You are asked to raise your hand or press a button to indicate that you have heard a sound when you visit your doctor to have your hearing examined. Researchers investigate bird auditory perception using a similar methodology. We train the birds to peck a button on the side of their cage if they detect a sound, or if the sound fits into a specific category or is different from another sound, because we are unable to ask them directly, “Did you hear that?”

Many similarities between human and songbird auditory sensitivity have been discovered in lab studies, including thresholds for perceiving pitch differences or intervals between sounds. However, they have also uncovered startling disparities in the ways that humans and birds perceive sound patterns and other acoustic details.

One important discovery from this research is that birds are surprisingly bad at identifying a melody that has been pitched up or down. People naturally recognize the tune of “Happy Birthday to You” regardless of whether it is played on a piano in a higher or lower register. Stewart H.’s classic lab experiments from the 1980s and 1990s Hulse and his associates at Johns Hopkins University demonstrated that, for birds, a sequence’s pitch variation results in a different tune, even though the underlying pattern stays the same. As a result, the melodies we perceive when we hear birdsong may differ greatly from what the birds perceive.

Subsequent studies have bolstered that hypothesis. European Starlings can recognize transposed sequences, but only if all the subtle details in the sounds are eliminated, according to research done in 2016 by a team led by Micah Bregman, who was then at the University of California, San Diego. That piece emphasizes how crucial those minute details are to birds when they are listening to song.

I love birds of all kind. I regrettably don’t have one, but I have multiple books about them. I was wondering. I’ve watched a lot of videos on Vimeo or YouTube where birds, particularly parrots, appear to really enjoy the music, and some of them even dance a little. Cockatoos even “headbang” to some music. What do you think? Does music help your pet birds relax or become more energetic? Archived post New comments cannot be posted and votes cannot be cast.


Do birds like the sound of music?

Yes, they do. Cockatiels, cockatoos, and some other birds will dance to preferred music, and repeat a whistled tune! Many songbirds learn to sing songs by listening to older birds of their same species, who have already learned the songs, then through much trial and error, they finally perfect their songs.

What kind of music do birds like?

They seem to like pop music when there is a voice.” It’s unclear exactly why parrots have a strong dislike for dance and techno music like The Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy. Researchers believe it could be related to how their brain interprets the music, which is essentially like ours.

Do birds recognize music?

Yes, they do. Cockatiels, cockatoos, and some other birds will dance to preferred music, and repeat a whistled tune! Many songbirds learn to sing songs by listening to older birds of their same species, who have already learned the songs, then through much trial and error, they finally perfect their songs.

Do birds respond to human singing?

“The same regions that respond to music in humans, at least the areas that can also be found in the bird brain, responded to song in our sparrows,” said an author of the new report, Donna Maney, a neuroscientist at Emory University.