(HOST) As songbirds return to the northeast, commentator Kristen Laine is thinking about what it takes – to carry a tune.
(LAINE) Our pair of bluebirds are back. They’re like moving islands of color in our sepia-toned backyard. Their brilliant Caribbean blue surprises and delights me whenever it catches my eye. It nearly blinds me to the troop of fat, red-breasted robins poking about in the dry leaves and underbrush.
The birds brought music with them, too – warbling whistles, whinnies, and tuts that are as much a sign of spring as their bright colors. "Cheer, cheer, cheerful charmer" is how birders describe the song of the bluebird; "cheerily, cheerio" for the robin.
The two birdsongs sound similar to my ear, the joyful sound of spring on the wing. But decades ago, music teachers elevated the song of the bluebird above that of the common robin. A textbook published in the 1920s dubbed children who could carry a tune "bluebirds"; those who couldn’t were called "robins." Music teachers were advised to address "the problem of the monotone" by telling the robins not to sing.
I was a robin – a monotone, unable to hear different pitches or to match them. At age 10, the same age my daughter is now, I was asked to leave my church choir. The director told my mother that my enthusiastic but tuneless singing made it hard for the other kids to hear their parts.
Years later, when Ursula started taking violin lessons, it was quickly apparent that she had inherited my musical inability. She had a hard time hearing the difference between a C-natural and a C-sharp, or the way certain notes "rang" when they were in tune. But unlike me, Ursula was blessed with a teacher who believed that every child could, and should, learn music, and who knew how to train Ursula’s ears and fingers and to engage her mind and her heart. And also unlike me, Ursula has persevered. Now in her sixth year of lessons, she has learned to hear more than the notes she plays. Like the bluebirds in our backyard – and like the poor maligned robins, too – she has developed a sense of phrasing, of rhythm, of what you might call the soul of a song.
We now know that bird songs have to be taught, too. Many bird calls are innate, born along with the bird. Only a few of the major bird groups have the ability to learn longer, more complex sounds. Typically, this happens over a period of several months while the bird is a juvenile. For most of these, the window for learning closes at adulthood. But both bluebirds and robins, ironically, are passerines, members of the largest group that learns these more complicated songs.
An even smaller number of birds – true songbirds – can make new music throughout their lives.
Humans are also open-ended learners. I could learn to carry a tune, could move from being a robin to a bluebird, if I gave it the time. Ursula though, has already moved beyond those categories. I hear her now, and I hear her making her own music. She is becoming a songbird.