In his weekly blog Stuart Benn, Conservation Manager in north Scotland, discusses a little known connection between bird song and house music.


Here in the north, there’s a battle going on between Winter and Spring.  I was out on the hill on Sunday and it was as wild a day as I’ve known – storm force winds that made walking a real effort and when it started snowing it was like getting tiny needles blasted into your eyes.  Yet, today it’s calm, warm and feeling like May.  No doubt there will be more cold and snow before February is out but Spring will win in the end, it always does.

Practically each day I hear a bird singing for the first time this year – Chaffinch, Blackbird, Great spotted woodpecker (not singing but drumming though it serves the same purpose – this is my territory, come in if you’re female and keep out if you’re male).  How uplifting those notes are and they sure put a spring in my step.

Great spotted woodpecker by Tom Marshall (RSPB-images)

But no matter how much we listen to those songs, the birds are listening even more intently and research has shown that they can differentiate between songs that sound exactly the same to us.  With canaries at least, the more that certain notes are sung (the so-called ‘sexy syllables’), the more receptive the females are.  And, of course, that gives a very strong selection pressure for males with more of those elements in their songs and so it goes on.

Emphasising passages of music that had a positive effect is the basis for House and Garage music and all their numerous offshoots.  Back in the day, some DJs noticed that people danced more energetically during the instrumental breaks in Disco records.  They didn’t know precisely why but it was obvious that people did so they began constructing tracks that consisted more and more of those sections.  Eventually, the old structure of verse chorus verse was done away with and all you were left with were breaks and so was born one of the most all-conquering musical genres of recent years.

Gilles Peterson played an example on Saturday – Sin Love with You by JETS (aka Machinedrum and Jimmy Edgar) and you can catch it here on YouTube.  Just released but it has its roots back in the 70s - how can you not want to dance when you hear that!

Now, we may not know why certain sounds affect us like they do and I’d bet a canary doesn’t know either - maybe it’s just hard-wired within us all as animals.  Perhaps it doesn’t do to analyse it too much so whether it’s a bird singing or your favourite music just enjoy it – it’s all good!