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Dr Patricia Gray
Starlings have tremendous vocal talents
 real 28k

Friday, 5 January, 2001, 18:14 GMT
Singing from the same song sheet
Starling Starling BBCWILD/ William Osborn
The starling: Mozart was fascinated by the bird's call
Whales, birds and humans all sing and they do it in much the same way, researchers are finding.

The roots of music lie closer to our ancient lizard brain than to our more recent reasoning cortex

Dr Patricia Gray
The similarities are so marked researchers have suggested that the three types of animal may share a musical ancestor at some stage in their evolutionary history.

Dr Patricia Gray and colleagues have found that the undersea songs of humpback whales, for example, use rhythms similar to those used by humans. They say whales mix percussive sounds with pure tones in the same proportion as western symphonic music.

And like humans, whales use variations on basic themes to create longer songs that contain repeated refrains.

Perfect pitch

Birds are said to use every fundamental rhythmic effect found in human music. The 18th Century composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a great admirer of bird song and even wrote a piece of music inspired by a pet starling's song.

Thrush BBC
The thrush follows the same musical scales we use
"Here we have an interesting example of a kind of cross-species sharing," said Dr Gray, pianist and artistic director of the National Musical Arts (NMA), the resident ensemble of the US National Academy of Sciences.

"Starlings have tremendous vocal talents. I can well imagine Mozart whistling something out loud, and there the starling is picking up on it, whistling it back to him and then mixing it up with all sorts of variations."

Some birds even use "instruments" to produce sounds that are not possible vocally. The palm cockatoo of Northern Australia shapes a drumstick from a twig and beats out rhythms on hollow logs as part of its courtship ritual.

Birds, whales and humans also share the ability to memorise and learn musical patterns. These patterns may be handed down from generation to generation, or individuals from the same generation can learn from each other.

Humpback whale BBC
Whale song shares structures with human music
The researchers give the example of Indian Ocean humpback whales that moved to the Pacific coast of Australia. Within three years the whales on the east coast had abandoned their traditional scores in favour of songs imported by the newcomers.

"If music making is as ancient as some believe, this could explain why we find so much meaning and emotion in music, even though we cannot say why it makes us feel the way it does," said the researchers.

"This seems to signal that the roots of music lie closer to our ancient lizard brain than to our more recent reasoning cortex, and that music has a more ancient origin than language."

The research is published in the journal Science.

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