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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

BirdNote®: Bird Song, Music, and Neuroscience

Air Date: Week of

Scientists at Emory University wanted to know whether a bird experiences a song from its own species the way we experience music. (Photo: Ken C. Schneider)

Listening to the birds sing brings deep joy to many people, and so does music. But how the birdsong and music relate is a mystery that scientists are now struggling to unravel, as Michael Stein explains.



CURWOOD: It may not be a surprise that our close primate relatives seem to have cognitive responses and understanding that is parallel to ours. But as Michael Stein explains in today’s BirdNote®, we seem to be on many of the same pages with our feathered friends, at least when it comes to song.

Bird Song, Music, and Neuroscience

STEIN: Scientists at Emory University have taken a novel approach to a question that's hung in the air for millennia: how are music and bird song related? The new approach puts the question this way: looking at what happens in the brain, does a bird experience a song from its own species the way we experience man-made music? Brain imaging studies have shown that hearing enjoyable music lights up what's called the mesolimbic reward pathway in the human brain. The study reveals a very similar pattern in the sparrow’s brain. Female White-throated Sparrows, hormonally charged for breeding season, were played songs of male White-throated Sparrows.

[White-throated Sparrow song]

Just as in humans, the mesolimbic reward pathway lit up. You might say the sparrows were, at the neural level, turned on by the songs of a potential mate.

The same reward pathway that lights up when humans wear music also lights up when female white-throated sparrows hear a male’s call. (Photo: Putneypics)

[White-throated Sparrow song]

Not so with male sparrows, though. Hearing the song of another male triggered the part of the brain similar to the one that lights up when humans hear horror film music.


For a male sparrow, when he hears the song of a potential breeding rival, there's a lot at stake.


I am Michael Stein.
Written by Bob Sundstrom
Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. White-throated Sparrow song [169021] recorded by Matthew D Medler.
Music 'Le Merle Noir' by Olivier Messiaen performed by Matthew Schelhorn and the soloists of the
Philharmonia Orchestra.
BirdNote’s theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Dominic Black
© 2015 Tune In to Nature.org May 2015 Narrator: Michael Stein
White-throated Sparrow male - Putneypics https://www.flickr.com/photos/38983646@N06/8690345201
White-throated Sparrow tunes up - Ken C Schneider https://www.flickr.com/photos/rosyfinch/4535903592

CURWOOD: You can find pictures if you hop on over to our website LOE.org.



Listen to this week’s BirdNote®

About the white-throated sparrow


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