Stuff that occurs to me

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Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

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Science in London: The 2016 scientific society talks in London blog post

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Wondering if birds have perfect pitch

On my way to Jury Service (fun!) a couple of weeks ago I wondered if birds have perfect pitch. They certainly seem to repeat their songs at the exact same pitch and I wondered if they can easily transpose a song as most humans can*.

I asked my friend, colleague and fellow DorkbotLondon-goer Dan Stowell who works at the Centre for Digital Music (C4DM) at QMUL. He's an ideal person to ask because he co-created an app (Warblr) which 'listens' to birdsong and suggests what species it might be and he also convened the Listening in the Wild 2015 conference on "Animal and machine audition in multisource environments" which I attended and enjoyed.

Dan's replies to my emailed questions are in black italic text, mine in a sort of pinkish russet.

Do birds generally sing their tunes on the same starting note, or can they / do they occasionally transpose?

Same note. Birds are MUCH less interested in "relative pitch" and transposition as are humans. The evidence suggests that in many cases, we hear things as being identical-but-transposed, but birds hear them as different. (The evidence is a bit patchy though)

Do you know if lyrebirds' mimicry also includes the same pitch of whatever they're mimicking?

I don't know! I believe it's the same.

He also pointed me to a recent paper "Animal Pitch Perception: Melodies and Harmonies" by Marisa Hoeschele.

Lyrebirds have an incredible ability to mimic all sorts of everyday sounds and there are amazing clips on YouTube of them doing this. I first came across these birds thanks to one of David Attenborough's BBC programmes. The bird was doing an impression of chainsaws, the sound of which rather poignantly heralds the diminution of its habitat! At the time it didn't occur to me to wonder if the lyrebird was singing the chainsaw tune at the same pitch as the actual chainsaw, but now I'm curious. I'd have to assume it was the same pitch but would be happy to hear from anyone who might know. Possibly I'll come across a recording of what the lyrebird hears and its impression of it.

Wolves, however, I'm marking down as not having perfect pitch, thanks to this^ YouTube video in which they join in with an air raid / flood warning siren by having a bit of an off-pitch howl.



A while ago I came across this video of a two year old Chinese boy who can easily recognise which digit in a telephone number is dialled from just its sound. Each digit, when pressed, emits two different tones (basically a chord) because of the dual tone multi frequency signalling system in use - I don't know if these two-tones / inherent-intervals are easier to recognise (would I, as a person without perfect pitch, ever be able to do this?). Also Chinese speakers might find this sort of thing easier anyway (I understand that perfect pitch or pitch memory tends to be more common among native speakers of that language than compared with native English speakers) because Chinese is a tonal language in which pitch matters to the meaning.



Hopefully the thought that perfect-pitch-eared people might listen in and know which number you're dialling might encourage people from switching off annoying key tones on their phone.

**********

I suspect this train of thought (pondering birdsong's pitchness) probably emerged after having heard Far Side of the Moore on Radio 4 which was a sweet and amusing radio play about the launch of Patrick Moore's career as a television presenter on Sky at Night.

One of my favourite people, Tom Hollander, played Moore and he 'got' his voice and mannerisms perfectly. Quite uncanny. Tom also did an amazing portrayal of Dylan Thomas, and seems to be really rather good at that sort of thing.

At the time of writing there are about two weeks left to hear the whole programme on iPlayer / catch up though I think this 3min clip is permanently available.

I'd previously wondered if Tom has perfect pitch, based on my friend sending me a Vine video of him whistling the Hanna tune and finding it was exactly the same pitch as the one used in Hanna. I'd struggle to whistle the theme at the best of times (Tom has whistling form, I do not) but I'd certainly not get the exact pitch even if I did hit some of the notes. If someone has perfect pitch are they in a better position to hear, and 'get', the sound of someone else's voice? Presumably there are actors who don't have perfect pitch (and I've no idea if Tom does!) who've done a fantastic job of getting someone just right, but I wondered if it was a useful thing to be able to have / do.

Things I want to do now
1. Teach lyrebirds to whistle this Hanna tune
2. Teach lyrebirds all sorts of other stuff, but recorded at slow speeds so their playback is a bit spooky




*According to a YouTube video I watched people with perfect pitch might actually find it harder to transpose a song because they have such a strong sense of absolute pitch and struggle a bit with relative pitch, whereas the rest of us find that mostly quite easy once we have a starting note. ^Feel free to judge me for getting evidence from YouTube videos :)



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