Is Birdsong Music?

Is Birdsong Music?

Outback Encounters with an Australian Songbird
Hollis Taylor, foreword by Philip Kitcher, edited by Hollis Taylor
Distribution: Global
Publication date: 05/01/2017
ISBN: 978-0-253-02648-4
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How and when does music become possible? Is it a matter of biology, or culture, or an interaction between the two? Revolutionizing the way we think about the core values of music and human exceptionalism, Hollis Taylor takes us on an outback road trip to meet the Australian pied butcherbird. Recognized for their distinct timbre, calls, and songs, both sexes of this songbird sing in duos, trios, and even larger choirs, transforming their flute-like songs annually. While birdsong has long inspired artists, writers, musicians, and philosophers, and enthralled listeners from all walks of life, researchers from the sciences have dominated its study. As a field musicologist, Taylor spends months each year in the Australian outback recording the songs of the pied butcherbird and chronicling their musical activities. She argues persuasively in these pages that their inventiveness in song surpasses biological necessity, compelling us to question the foundations of music and confront the remarkably entangled relationship between human and animal worlds. Equal parts nature essay, memoir, and scholarship, Is Birdsong Music? offers vivid portraits of the extreme locations where these avian choristers are found, quirky stories from the field, and an in-depth exploration of the vocalizations of the pied butcherbird.

Author Bio

Hollis Taylor is Research Fellow at Macquarie University. A violinist/composer, ornithologist, and author, her work confronts and revises the study of birdsong, adding the novel reference point of a musician’s trained ear.


“Hollis Taylor is someone rare and courageous, a pioneer. No one has given themselves so fully to the quest to understand bird song as music. Her book Is Birdsong Music? pursues its question with such intelligence and care that her answer is altogether convincing.”
 — Tim Low, author of Where Song Began

“This book, for me, was a revelation: so much careful, vivid observation and description from all over Australia. It shows our bird life to be unique, talented, and above all, surprising. Music to my eyes.”
 — Robyn Williams, The Science Show

“Thirty years ago, many musicologists wondered if women could compose real music. In the intervening years, we have broadened our sights, including not only women as musical agents but also people who hail from locales outside Western Europe and North America. Hollis Taylor now invites us to consider seriously the creativity manifested by Australian birds, challenging our species-centric concepts of music. A fascinating and persuasive book.”
 — Susan McClary, author of Desire and Pleasure in Seventeenth-Century Music

“One of the best books ever on birdsong—perhaps the best.”
 — Dominique Lestel, author of L’animal est l’avenir de l’homme

“Progress in the biology of human music is hampered by the notorious intractability of defining music. In this predicament Hollis Taylor boldly asks how much of what we know of human music can be found in the exquisite vocal artistry of perhaps the foremost bird singer, the pied butcherbird. Her pioneering quest for an answer is heroic and wide-ranging, both physically and intellectually, and she shares it with us in this fascinating book.”
 — Bjorn Merker, editor of The Origins of Music

“The beautiful book Hollis Taylor has written about the song of the pied butcherbird shows how fertile and pertinent zoomusicology is. Her important bulk of data and reflection support and enrich the ongoing reappraisal of human culture. We musicians are no longer alone.”
 — François-Bernard Mâche, composer and author of Musique au singulier

“Hollis Taylor has given us one of the most serious books ever written on animal music. Is Birdsong Music? is so engaging that all who care about humanity’s place on Earth should read it. We are certainly not the only musicians on this planet.”
 — David Rothenberg, author of Why Birds Sing

Is Birdsong Music? is an absorbing and delightfully written field diary as much as it is a technical analysis of sound and a philosophical discussion of the concept of music . . . Hollis Taylor’s book encourages us to recognise the importance and interconnectedness of all species. She challenges the dominant view that humans represent the pinnacle of all life and can act independently of the environment. The cultural connection between species is integral to environmental connection.”
 — RealTime

Is Birdsong Music?, a ground-breaking study of the songs of the pied butcherbird, is intellectually engaging and also very entertaining as a fieldwork memoir.”
 — The Music Trust

“"This book, for me, was a revelation: so much careful, vivid observation and description from all over Australia. It shows our bird life to be unique, talented, and above all, surprising. Music to my eyes." ”
 — ABC-Radio National

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Table of Contents

Foreword by Philip Kitcher
1. An Outback Epiphany
2. Songbird Studies
3. The Nature of Transcription and the Transcription of Nature
4. Notes and Calls: A Taste for Diversity
5. Song Development: A Taste for Complexity
6. Musicality and the Art of Song: A Taste for Beauty
7. Border Conflicts at Music’s Definition
8. Facts to Suit Theories
9. Too Many Theories and Not Enough Birdsong
10. Songbirds as Colleagues and Contemporaries
List of Abbreviations
Notation and Supplement Conventions