Oct 4th, 2012 by andrew skeoch
When we describe birdsong as ‘nature’s music’, we often mean it more poetically than technically. The reason I think is that our music is based around scales and melodies – that is what we think of as musical.
But these species are soloists. In the Solomon Islands, for the first time, we encountered a community of birds singing in a musical scale.
The White-capped Monarch is a small bird, a member of the flycatcher family, and found only on a handful of islands in the New Georgia group of the central Solomons. Each bird can be heard to give single, pure-note whistles, slightly tremulous and quavering. It is quite an ethereal call. The effect of several birds singing together however, is magical.
The first time we heard this was in the darkness of predawn, in Tetepare’s primary lowland rainforests. (Sarah sets the scene in her recent photoblog.)
We came across a part of the forest where maybe a dozen birds seemed to be roosting within a hundred metres. At around 5am, they began singing, first just a solitary bird, then another, and an hour later there were a choir of birds whistling pure notes into the air.
Here’s a little of what we heard:
At first I was just delighting in the acoustic effect they were creating. But then I realised that whilst they could have been singing any random pitches, in fact, they weren’t. They were singing together in a musical scale.
Two pitches seemed to be dominant; a tone and another roughly three semitones higher. This interval we know musically as a minor third (eg; the first two notes of ‘Greensleeves’). As I continued listening, occasionally a bird would add a ‘filler’ note between, only a tone higher than the first. Now the birds seemed to be improvising on the first three notes of a minor scale.
Then ‘someone’ threw in a much lower pitch – two whole tones lower again. You can hear all this as you play the excerpt above.
From a few notes, this was now beginning to sound distinctly like a scale. Actually, more like one of the old medieval church modes, which predate our modern scales, and specifically, the Aeolian mode.
If you’re at all familiar with the piano keyboard, here’s how to think of it: a regular major scale (your do-re-mi from school days) plays C-C on the white notes. To play Aeolian, stick to those white notes, but play A-A. This gives a minor third interval A-C, which were the bird’s dominant notes, with that ‘filler’ note being B, and the lower pitch an F two whole tones below. Just muck around with those four notes and you’ll be playing the theme song of ‘The Monarchs of Tetepare’.
Well, not quite. Whilst our music is perfectly pitched, nature is not like that. These birds were singing in micro-tones, quavering their notes and gliding them almost imperceptibly. On rare occasions I heard one try a major third, before sliding back to the minor. And then a minor second got attempted, just a semitone above the dominant pitch – they were getting quite avant garde!
You can tell I was fascinated with all this. I don’t know if these birds tell us anything about the relationship between our human musical expression and that of nature, but we’d never heard anything like it before.
What I can say is that the whole experience of being in the forest, with only faint shafts of moonlight relieving the darkness, and these wonderful sounds around us, was utterly enchanting. Deeply relaxing. It was a unique occasion, rarely heard, and only in that localised region of the Solomon Islands.
We decided that the complete recording is so restful that many would enjoy it as an album to itself. It is one of those soundscapes that just lulls you hypnotically, yet it is always changing.
It is now released as the Listening Earth album; ‘The Monarchs of Tetepare’, available for download here.
(Incidentally, the activities list for visitors to Tetepare Island now includes a rainforest nightwalk to hear the Monarchs. Our local guide was Twomey, and he knows exactly where to go.)
Established in 1993 by nature sound recordist Andrew Skeoch and photographer Sarah Koschak, Listening Earth offers a range of beautiful nature sound recordings from around the world.
"Our albums feature only the sounds of nature as you would hear in the wild - no music or other distractions. Recorded in often remote and pristine locations, they bring you the relaxing and beautiful sounds of our living planet. Listen, and let our recordings take you there."