When you step outside and hear birdsong, you know you’re hearing a kind of natural music.
Peter Szöke, a biologist and musicologist from Hungary, was a pioneer in ornithomusicology, a cross-disciplinary study of the music of birds. His curious, out-of-print LP, "The Unknown Music of Birds," reveals hidden aspects of birdsong via tape manipulation. Associate professor Gro Shetelig Kruse of The Norwegian Academy of Music uses samples from this record to teach ear training and aural training.
5 Questions for Gro Shetelig Kruse
Q: What interested you in Peter Szöke’s work?
A: Actually, I bought the record in a store out of pure curiosity (stirred by the title) during a visit to Hungary. I had no prior knowledge of Peter Szöke or his field work.
Q: What did you learn by listening to the true songs of birds stretched and made audible?
A: Anyone who first listens to the original sound, and then gradually the stretched versions until every single note is audible, would be amazed by the enormous variety, ranging from pure rhythmic patterns without defined pitch, to what we would call ugly noise or grunts, to beautiful elaborate long tunes. It has also made me more aware when I am outdoors, and hear other birds than the species on the record in my own surroundings, sometimes trying to detect what lies behind those sounds.
Q: How do you use them to teach students in Aural skills class?
A: This needs an explanation since Aural Skills can be, and is, taught is so many ways. The birdsong excerpts are not used as a special study course but are part of a wide selection of music (ranging from classical, folk, jazz, musical, opera, overtone-singing, etc.) used in the normal Aural skills classes. Listening, imitation, memory training and other activities without score form the basic of the courses, leading to exercises on the topic in question. Every excerpt used in class is thus chosen for a specific purpose to cover the curriculum as a whole, focusing on different aspects, melodic, rhythm, harmony, tempo, form, expression, etc. At the same time the musical selection opens the ears to the wide variety and common traits between different kinds of music.
First I play the bird sound as it is heard - in normal tempo. Questions/ discussions: 1. Listen - What do you hear? (Which is also the translated title of my book) One note? Several notes? Just one "sound"? Can you detect any shape of a melody?
Then I let them hear the stretched sound and we answer questions and do activities. The woodlark, for example, displays a song in D major, clearly tonal, with broken melodic chords, repetition of motives, variation, scale-wise motion, and with a slight ritardando at the end.
Once they have memorized, described, sometimes written down the music, I return to the original. This time they are far more aware of the nuances.
Q: What is the name of your book?
A: In Norwegian: Hva hører du? Translated this would be: "Listen - What do you hear?"
Q: What's fascinating to you about bird song?
A: I am playing with the idea that birds' perception of time might somehow be mirrored in their song, that is, what to us seems like a second, might in their world be at least 100 times more, a long life!
Gro Shetelig Kruse is Assistant Professor in ear-training and aural training at The Norwegian Academy of Music. She has published several textbooks on methods of ear-training. She is also a co-author of “Listen to Scandinavia – a textbook in the art of listening,” which is based on a wide range of works by Nordic composers from the 20th Century.