The Chickadee Symphony

A composer reflects on three decades of birdsong.

 

Emily Poole

On my land in the Black Forest, north of Colorado Springs, Colorado, the black-capped chickadees are up to something. They don’t migrate, but the notes in their spring song have. It may be a stretch to say that the chickadees are composing, but over the nearly 30 years I’ve lived here, their spring song has evolved in a way that I, as a composer, can appreciate.

Scientists have found that bird songs are affected in various ways by altitude, region, stress and many other environmental factors. I’m an artist, not a scientist, but I’ve yet to see data showing specific pitch shifts resulting in a different melodic shape. What I’ve heard on my land is exactly that.

I’ve kept a journal for many years. My first entries of the chickadees’ song, from 1988, note three pitches reminiscent of a blues lick that I often play on the guitar. For many years, that was the chickadees’ only tune.

Classical composers often divided their symphonic movements into three chunks: exposition, development and recapitulation. In the exposition, they laid out a brief musical theme or themes. Most composers, including Mozart, used only two themes; Beethoven splintered the so-called rules by using however many themes he wanted. We might think of the blues lick as the first theme or exposition of a Chickadee Symphony:

 

The tonic, or “home,” pitch for the chickadees is close to our “F” note. The note varies only slightly here and there. But ever so gradually, the top two notes of the lick, the B flat and the A flat, have migrated in two distinct ways.

The first variation appeared alongside the original, almost as if we were entering the development section of the symphony. In this new melody, the A flat has migrated down a half step (the distance between a white key on the piano and its adjacent black key) to a G:

 

If it were four octaves lower, the notes in the new melody would sound like an old R&B bass line of the sort Elvis Presley’s band used in “Burning Love.” (The chickadees would have to work on the rhythm; they’re funky, but not that funky.)

As the years passed, Variation 2 came on the scene. In Variation 2, the top two pitches have both migrated down a half step. This variation sounds like “Three Blind Mice,” or, to listeners of a certain generation, the Three Stooges theme.

 

 

Variation 2, it turns out, is quite close to the Carolina chickadee song. Variation 2 came late to the party on my land, from where I don’t know. Perhaps it’s an emergent property; when conditions are right, the birds give out the Three Stooges theme.

At present, on my land, we seem to be firmly in the development section of our Chickadee Symphony. This is where composers have the most fun, playing all kinds of musical games with the themes they established at the outset. Beethoven, in his famous Fifth Symphony, enraptures us to this day with a seven-minute elaboration on a four-note theme: da, da, da, DUM. (I don’t have to notate that one, do I?) It sounds a bit like a birdcall, which makes sense, since both the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies recall the sounds that the increasingly deaf composer once heard in nature.

The development section of the Chickadee Symphony really gets cooking with a seemingly random amalgam of the three melodies, their texture and interest enhanced by false starts and added vocal stops — not unlike what bagpipers do to separate notes from the constant air stream. As the three variations skitter across, around and through one another, the birds create an almost Bach-like web of counterpoint. Quite beautiful.

I may need a few more decades to see where this Chickadee Symphony is headed. Will there be a recapitulation, where the birds return to just the original blues lick? Probably not. I’ll be expecting something new, because unlike human art, which is bounded, nature is always in a state of becoming.

Tom Taylor is a composer, guitarist and recording artist who also teaches jazz at Colorado College.