Canyon wren

House of the rising sun

Can animals make music?

Many species of animal – such as birds and whales – produce sounds sharing at least some similarities with human music. Mice also sing, though at frequencies too high for humans to hear.

The highly evocative and complex sounds of humpback and blue whales are made during the mating season, which suggests that the sounds influence sexual selection. Humpbacks also appear to make feeding calls, suggesting that they also use them for communication.

Sexual selection and communication also lie at the heart of birdsong and gibbon song. Gibbons duet with one another, and also use song to warn of approaching predators. Birdsong has inspired numerous composers, old and new, from Beethoven and Wagner to Pink Floyd and Kate Bush (notably Olivier Messiaen). Indeed, it can trigger powerful emotional responses (beautifully captured in Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’).

The palm cockatoo is a proficient drummer. A male will fashion a ‘drumstick’ from a twig it has broken off a tree and, as part of a courtship ritual, hold it in its foot and bang it against a hollow log.

And one final note: the song of the canyon wren is said to cascade down the musical scale like the opening of Chopin’s ‘Revolutionary Étude’.

Lead image:

Canyon wren.

Caleb Putnam/Flickr CC BY


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Ecology and environment, Genetics and genomics
Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development