This morning I’m thinking about birdsong. It seems that much of the research on birdsong takes-as-granted that birdsong is consonant. Or perhaps it is better said that the research searches for Western music theoretical definitions of consonance within birdsong. Much early scholarship suggested birds prefer pentatonic scales. In interdisciplinary research, composer Emily Doolittle found that hermit thrushes music better aligned with overtones, rather than pentatonic scales, following harmonic distribution. But the researchers in that study were looking to fit birdsong into music theoretical conceptions of, what I am calling, consonance. Some way to understand thrush music as beautiful. Look at the image they use in their research (link here) and it’s easy to see that though the thrush’s song centers approximately near notes on a Western scale, which are notated using Western notation, there is a wide spectrum of sounds in the birdsong. In other words, a lot of consonance-modification is necessary to fit the birdsong into our theory.
The word consonance comes from the Latin consonantia, meaning agreement or concord. Two different sounds in agreement with one another. Paralleling this, the word dissonance means disagreement or incongruity. These words, consonance and dissonance, have music theoretical applications. In Western music, for instance, the Major 7th harmony is understood as dissonant, and “needs” resolving. In contrast, in Jazz theory, the Major 7th is considered consonant and seldom needs resolved. Western theory and Jazz theory both utilize harmony for the sake of tension and resolution—but their harmonic languages, and therefore their understanding of specific harmonies as consonant or dissonant, are different. The ideas of consonant and dissonant, without going beyond my own wheelhouse of Western music and Jazz music (both of which I teach at Penn State Altoona) are relative to genre and musical culture. [How much better an example might I have at my fingertips if I taught Javanese gamelan or Korean minyo music the past 6 years!]
Ivan Illich, in a philosophical statement that challenges us—that I wrestle with, and which I succeed at times and fail at others—to look at soil. He (and friends) write:
“We note that such virtue is traditionally found in labor, craft, dwelling and suffering supported, not by an abstract earth, environment or energy system, but by the particular soil these very actions have enriched with their traces. Yet, in spite of this ultimate bond between soil and being, soil and the good, philosophy has not brought forth the concepts that would allow us to relate virtue to common soil, something vastly different from managing behavior on a shared planet.”
Even so, I began this reflection on birdsong in the abstract—with research fitting birdsong into Western theoretical models. It is time to pivot—to recognize the bond of soil and being. I'll do this as best I can in a WebLog: I listen to birdsongs, and hear chickadees, sparrows, mourning doves, cardinals and blue jays.
Listen to these chickadee songs. I hear the “dee dee dee” call.
Listen to the cacophonous house sparrow chirps, so similar to what I hear.
Listen to the mourning dove’s sad, hollow song.
Listen to the cardinal’s “rrrrrr” and whoops.
And listen to the blue jay’s “jay” shouts.
All of these dominate the soundscape in my place. These sounds all resonate together and, to my understanding of music, in dissonance. I think we do these complex minds disservice when we think of their music as simple, pretty songs easily reducible to our conception of consonance. I don’t think most of these songs in my soundscape could be reduced to pentatonic scales or even overtone series without loosing something essential. Rather, they are full, polyphonic, complex sounds. So, why do I not feel indigestion when listening to these dissonances, the same way I feel indigestion when listening to Pierrot Lunaire? Pierrot Lunaire is uncomfortable, while I could meditate to my backyard soundscape for hours.
Perhaps there’s a type of consonance on the other side of dissonance.
In a video, posted this week by the popular YouTuber and composer David Bruce, Bruce discusses the repetition of dissonance in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Here he borrows a phrase from a Jazz musician, repetition legitimizes. While his analysis lacks some of the critique of problematic elements in the early-20th Century that are part of the Rite (such as Stravinsky’s depiction of “savages” and linking them with nature—which might parallel my own research into music educator Satis Coleman and Recapitulation Theory), this analysis helps explain to me why the Rite is far more popular than anything Schoenberg composed. Stravinsky seemed to have a sense for the fact that repetition legitimizes. By repeating his most dissonant ideas, Stravinsky permits the audience to legitimize the sounds.
I’ll go even further than repetition legitimizes. Repetition transforms.
Repetition transforms dissonance into consonance through familiarity. Can we be in disagreement with family (the familiar)? It is phenomenological. Sensed. Felt. Lived experience.
Daily I hear my birds in these Appalachian mountains. Some, like the chickadee are natives, and others, like the sparrow, are immigrants (like my family) and have long made their homes here. Harmonies in the soundscape that would (by Western or Jazz theory) be defined as dissonant are experienced as consonant when I listen to my soundscape each day. Not only have I listened to my soundscape each day of my life, but humanity has for hundreds of thousands of years. Our musical evolution begins with birdsongs. These brilliant minds, so different than our hominid minds, help make us different than other great apes. We are in consonance (consonantia) with birds, because we are in agreement. We have over our centuries of being together reduced their complex, polyphonic singing to fit our own, simpler, monophonic voices. If we can recognize our limitations in comparison to our avian brothers and sisters who have been musicking for far more centuries, perhaps we can also humbly protect them from our progress when it results in the destruction of lived environments. Our economy is too often at dissonance with bird life. All of life, including our own, benefits from our finding consonance with life.