Tips on how to sing like a bird ... from actual birds
Psychologists studying how and why birds sing find similarities between human and bird creativity.
We've boiled bird noises down to this one, simple word. But we all know that birdsongs are far more elaborate than that. Why do birds sing? Do they create new melodies? Researchers have been studying these questions for decades, and some of them are just starting to crack the melodic code. Scientists at universities from America, Israel and Japan are learning some valuable lessons from bird songs. By diving into their various research, we've come up with some bird-created tips on being creative that could be useful to those of us who like to sing but can't fly.
Learn in pieces
Ofer Tchernichovski, a zoologist from Tel Aviv University in Israel who currently teaches at Hunter College in New York, has led much of the research on this subject. He has discovered that birds learn new songs in parts. To figure out a new melody, birds learn a few notes at a time, mastering the first bits before going onto later ones. So if you want to learn a new song, try memorizing a chunk of the song perfectly, then move on to later bits, rather than trying to slowly learn the whole tune at once.
Play with what you already have
Birds often sing uncommon melodies. These birds could be "riffing" on what they already know, coming up with something new. “To learn something very robustly, you have to explore,” said Jeff Markowitz, a graduate student at Boston University who studies birdsong in a variety of species. Markowitz statistically analyzes "phrases" that come up in birdsong.
So if you're singing a song, try and make a few random modifications and see where they lead. You might discover something new.
Jam with your friends
According to Markowitz, wrens sing duets with other birds ... so you should find a singing partner, too! Singing with someone else helps you combine your ideas to come up with something neither of you could have thought of on your own. Plus, it's fun.
Mix it up
A variety of different birds makes these salt pools in southern Israel a whole lot more interesting. (Photo: Dafna Tal/Israel Ministry of Tourism)
By statistically analyzing the songs of western meadowlarks and American redstarts, Markowitz and his colleagues found that if a bird sings in a particular style, it won't repeat the style for a while. It seems like birds know they're riffing in a certain way, and they want to switch things up. Follow their lead and try out a new style every once in a while. Your performances will be way more interesting.
Get a good night's sleep
Tchernichovski found that when finches first wake up, they go through a recovery period. Their first song isn't that good, but they pick up the pace after a few songs. If the bird gets a good night's sleep, songs might become even more elaborate after a while. But if the bird doesn't get enough sleep, this recovery period takes much longer, and the performance is worse. So get some sleep before performing!
Go back and forth between structure and experimentation
As birds sleep, their brains get more elastic, which lets them experiment more. “What the bird is doing each morning is going back to a more plastic state,” Tchernichovski said.
As the day goes on, their brains tighten up, allowing their songs to snap into place. The next morning, they're back to being loose. “We found that the birds who oscillate in this way – more structure, less structure, more structure – learn better,” he explained. Try experimenting with new ideas in the morning and perfecting them in the afternoon and evening.
Put personality into your performance
Birds, like humans, put personality into each performance. No one is quite sure why they do this, or if they do it on purpose, but it certainly lets birds stand out from each other and makes their songs more interesting. Everyone wants their performances to be perfect, but it might be better to embrace your flaws. Perfect is boring; flaws are unique.
“Seeing that kind of complicated behavior acted out by such a simple species definitely makes me think that, from one perspective, what they’re doing is not human,” Markowitz says. “But from another perspective, what we do is a little more like what birds do than we might think.”
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