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Birdsong is arguably nature’s most musical and pleasing sounds. It presents a certain similarity towards human music, which has led researchers to apply musical theory to avian vocalisations.

The song of the Australian pied butcherbird has recently been analysed alongside human music, and a relationship was found between the complexity and repetition of the birdsong and patterns found in human music.

Therefore, the complex song of this species of bird produces patterns of repetition that clearly resemble those in human music. Further research suggests that birds can also perceive rhythm and change their calls in response. This suggests that their birdsong is more comparable to human speech than human song, as research tells us that birds have trouble differentiating rhythm.

Zebra finches seem to use the pauses between notes on short time scales, but do not recognise longer time frames, or overarching rhythmic arrangements. So, it can be considered that birds analyse each other’s songs by the melody instead of the rhythm. It is debated whether European starlings differentiate between sequences by their ‘spectral shape’, therefore listening to sounds similarly to the way we listen to speech.

However, other research counteracts this argument by putting forward the idea that this cannot be possible, due to the fact that birdsong is not relaying information in the same way our speech is. It’s more of a performance, used to captivate and to get attention. Therefore, the goal of birdsong is to announce individuality, as well as membership to a species.

It seems that male birds embellish the songs they learned from their fathers, as well as some song characteristics seemingly innate to certain species. Nevertheless, the way female birds pick up songs and decide which is best is still a mystery, and there is a long way to go before we can come to any definitive conclusions as to understanding birdsong.