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Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into the Mystery of Bird Song Hardcover – International Edition, April 12, 2005

15 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

As science explores the frontiers of the measurable, it begins to intrude into the realm of art, and this book occupies that uneasy zone. Rothenberg, a musician and philosopher, became fascinated with the similarities between human music and birds' songs. His investigations into these matters led him to zoos and forests, where he played his clarinet along with virtuoso lyrebirds and thrushes. His goal: to find out why birds sing by using "the whole toolbox of human talents," rather than just the theories and experiments of reductionist Darwinism. "Just because science demonstrates that a song has a specific territorial or sexual purpose doesn't mean that birds aren't singing because they love to," he writes. Assuming we can know what a bird loves to do is quite a bit of anthropomorphic conjecture, of course. "It may be impossible to escape the human perspective," Rothenberg writes, and then he joyfully acknowledges what he feels to be the truth: birds make music as surely as Charlie "Bird" Parker ever did. Rothenberg delves heartily into the lovely and strange structures of bird songs and finds enough syllables, rhythms and syncopations to fill a jazz encyclopedia. Illus.
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From Booklist

The question of why birds sing has kept humans entranced for millennia. Most scientists would answer that birds sing to claim territories and to attract mates. But why is so much of birdsong beautiful? In a unique approach to the study of birdsong, jazz musician and philosopher Rothenberg attacks this question through the medium of music. When a musician friend invited him to come and play music with the birds at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, Rothenberg's music attracted a white-crested laughing thrush. The bird began to sing along with the author's clarinet and to actually improvise as he improvised. This interaction led to a journey, both intellectual and physical, as Rothenberg investigated birdsong. Mixed throughout the narrative is the author's sheer joy at the musicality of birds' songs, illustrated with musical notations made by both the author and previous researchers. This lovely amalgam of science and music will appeal to both left- and right-brained readers. Nancy Bent
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; export ed edition (April 12, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 046507135X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465071357
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.7 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,225,430 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I am a writer, musician, and philosopher, most interested in how humanity is connected with the natural world. I have explored this connection in music and words, in recordings, books, lectures and performances.

You can look at my five websites for more information:

www.davidrothenberg.net
www.bugmusicbook.com
www.survivalofthebeautiful.com
www.whybirdssing.com
www.thousandmilesong.com

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 26 people found the following review helpful By B. Scharfstein on May 21, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Rothenberg writes with an easy intimacy, but if one takes him at his word, the intimacy that means most to him comes not by means of words but of music, and less by means of music as such than by an improvisatory exchange between, usually, himself on his clarinet, and someone else on whatever instrument the other person is using.

Given this driving urge, it seems inevitable that Rothenberg should want to cross the barrier between those most musical of creatures, the birds, and those with the most productive curiosity, the humans. His own curiosity leads him first to the birds and then to the human experts in birdsong. He gives vivid descriptions of these researchers' extraordinary devotion to their work. I especially enjoyed his description of the ability of the composer Olivier Messiaen to hear, transcribe, and whistle the complex songs of a bird he had never heard before.

Although, like a few of the researchers - Donald Kroodsma, for example - Rothenberg believes in the innate pleasure birds take in their song, he checks his intuitive sense of their muisicality by carefully summarizing what is scientifically known about their abilities and ways of life. Yet even though he takes to heart the criticism that the romantics "listened to birds and heard only themselves," he recalls that science, too, is fallible, and he plays on the ornithologists' conclusion that not only is each species of birds unique, but so is every individual bird.

"Why Birds Sing" ends in the climactic scene in which Rothenberg and a friend go to Australia to hear, see the dance of, and try to enter into a musical dialogue with the lyrebird named George, the only member, he says, of his elusive, musically gifted species who can stomach the sight and sound of human beings.
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37 of 43 people found the following review helpful By E. J. Mcadams on April 30, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This book is a hoot, a tweet, and a cheerup!

David Rothenberg has interwoven a personl journey of playing music with birds with a comprehensive history of bird song studies - from their poetic beginnings to their present scientific analysis. Because of his diverse talents, he is the perfect guide through these intellectual and musical forays.

Why do birds sing? There are many answers, but none are as satisfying as the relentless questioning in this book. I enjoyed it immensely and found it impossible to put down. I am sure you will enjoy it too.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Jonathan Balcombe on July 16, 2006
Format: Hardcover
In this slightly meandering but sincere book, musician and philosopher Rothenberg shows us that there are qualities to birdsong that transcend what science can tell us. Part of that transcendence is their emotional involvement with their songs, and Rothenberg can be counted among earlier authorities--including Len Howard, Charles Hartshorne, and Alexander Skutch--who believe that birds enjoy singing. His enthusiasm is most apparent when the discussion turns to music, and as an amateur musician I also enjoyed perusing the musical scores and sonograms of various feathered songsters.

Rothenberg hits the mark with his observation that "bird songs are a genuine challenge to the conceit that humanity is needed to find beauty in the natural world." Another conceit is the disturbing laboratory experiments he describes, in which singing birds have their brains pierced by wire electrodes and are later killed for dissection.

Readers get a bonus CD of the author's music with birdsong and other nature sounds.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By John Stotko on December 24, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Great book, references scientific research as well as aesthetic qualities of many song birds and non-song birds bringing the two realms of reasoning to somewhat of a compromise. I would definetly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know why birds sing.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Marek Norman on August 21, 2006
Format: Hardcover
David Rothenberg's lovely book, WHY BIRDS SING: A Journey Through

The Mystery of Bird Song, is an impressive achievement. The subject is fully researched, totally accessible, often fascinating, and always moving. I have long found that the wonder of bird song can bring profound solace to a troubled

spirit. Mr. Rothenberg's study completely validates my belief.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Amy Carlow on May 12, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Great book. It was a pleasure to read. The breadth of sources the author consults and clearly understands and appreciates is amazing. He mentions, "Over the last five years I have read far too much." Thank you. :)
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Charles on December 28, 2009
Format: Paperback
This book and CD are simply wonderful. Rothenberg is gifted writer and musician. Don't think twice about it. This is also an incredible gift.
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By Mary on September 12, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I purchased this as a gift after hearing a companion on insects on NPR. The receiver said that he liked it - it was unusual.
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