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    A Songbird That Uses Music Theory


    The tweet you hear from a certain bird is more than just a beautiful noise. This small, chunky bird is applying rules of music theory just like you.

    The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study found that the hermit thrush employs a harmonic series that’s remarkably similar to a woodwind instrument. The research team, including a composer, a biologist and statisticians, gathered and analyzed more than 100 songs from the male hermit thrush.

    In all, they found that more that 80 percent of the time, the hermit thrush created music in the harmonic series. Yes, this unique bird is singing scales!

    The hermit thrush’s song-like ability bird has been noted for years with bird experts claiming that it can sing in major and minor scales and pentatonic scales as well. Yet other researchers dismissed the idea. The birds’ lovely tweets, shrills and songs couldn’t use music theory because so many mathematical principles are involved (to understand the foundation of music theory, check out this blog post).

    The fact that a certain bird uses mathemtatical principles also reveals insight into our music. According to Smithsonian.com:

    “‘If an aspect of music is found not only in humans, but also in a variety of non-human species, this would suggest that there may be something in our shared biology that predisposes us to find that aspect interesting, or attractive, or easy to sing,’ research Emily Doolittle says. The thrush study reinforces the notion that human music is a product of both biology and culture—but perhaps there’s more biology at play than we thought.”

    Why are these birds so musical? Well, it appears it is all for love. According to Nature World News:

    “Rather, the researchers argue that the thrushes are intentionally choosing to sing in these patterns, as they somehow know that it will be most appealing to female thrushes (and human ears) – creating catchy tunes both easy to remember and easily measured.”

    That is music to our ears!

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    The Four Notes Heard Around The World

    Dig beneath the dominating sounds of string instruments. Ignore the Autotune treatments of today’s pop tunes.

    What if the fundamental elements of a good song in one genre is the same as a good song in another?

    David Garland of WNYC’s “Spinning on Air” lists 50 songs — from Mozart to Green Day — to show that good music throughout history has a common DNA. He believes that many songs use a four-note sequence i-bVII-bVI-V (or, in the key of A, the descending sequence A, G, F, E), known as the Andalusian Cadence. Garland also contends it’s the world most-used musical sequence.

    Readers in the comments section to Garland’s story willingly add more examples of the Andalusian cadence and it becomes very apparent that the cadence’s popularity exceeds more than 50 songs.

    Garland is quick to note that he does not think the Andalusian Cadence is a victim of intellectual theft or banality. Rather, he thinks that musicians are discovering and rediscovering this musical sequence all the time.

    “Probably some of the musicians whose music I’m playing tonight would be surprised to hear how common this music sequence really is,” he said. “I don’t mean to say it’s commonplace, it’s got a special magic to it.”

    Garland plays many of the 50 songs on his list and it’s a great treat to hear so many diverse tunes including those that normally wouldn’t make the radio or your online playlist. It’s also an opportunity to put your music knoweldge to the test. Can you hear the Andalusian Cadence in each of these songs?

    Do you want to have a deeper understanding of music theory? The Music Junction offers piano and voice lessons in Burbank and Hollywood and is staffed with educators who are skilled at training novices  as well as accomplished musicians and singers. Call today to learn more.
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