Off their perches

Alex reports on a recent study on the effects of Baroque and twentieth-century music on Javanese sparrows (Scott has more), which apparently shows that the sparrows “can discriminate between Bach’s French Suite no. 5 in G minor and Arnold Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano opus 25”. The same goes for Vivaldi and Elliott Carter.

One thing puzzles me about this experiment: is it suggesting that the birds offer proof that Bach and Vivaldi are preferable to Schoenberg and Carter, or that we should lower our auditory skills to those of Javanese sparrows?


4 thoughts on “Off their perches

  1. No, the interesting thing is that the birds had the cognitive ability to generalize from one specific Bach piece and one specific Schoenberg piece to another Bach piece and another Schoenberg piece, and to generalize even further to Vivaldi and Carter. This really suggests that the musical languages used by these composers, grouped very roughly as “tonal” and “modern” are so different that even the low cognitive capacities of sparrows can tell the difference. As I pointed out, this ability does not hinge on preference, since two of the birds had shown no preferences for either Bach or Schoenberg in the previous test. The test also supports no claims that one type of musical language is preferable to another, merely that at the most basic cognitive levels there are indeed (at least) two different languages.

    It’d be interesting to add pre-tonal music to the mix, and non-functional tonality as well, to see how far up the tonality hierarchy the birds are cognitively aware.

  2. To make a trite rejoinder, my childhood parakeet loved Mozart and would happily sing along to the “Jupiter” Symphony in its entirety, but when we put on the Beach Boys, he wouldn’t stop squawking until we took it off. Maybe the avian community just prefers Baroque-Classical composition.

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