Overtone-based pitch selection in hermit thrush song: Unexpected convergence with scale construction in human music

Emily L. Doolittle, Bruno Gingras, Dominik M. Endres, W. Tecumseh Fitch*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Many human musical scales, including the diatonic major scale prevalent in Western music, are built partially or entirely from intervals (ratios between adjacent frequencies) corresponding to small-integer proportions drawn from the harmonic series. Scientists have long debated the extent to which principles of scale generation in human music are biologically or culturally determined. Data from animal "song" may provide new insights into this discussion. Here, by examining pitch relationships using both a simple linear regression model and a Bayesian generative model, we show that most songs of the hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) favor simple frequency ratios derived from the harmonic (or overtone) series. Furthermore, we show that this frequency selection results not from physical constraints governing peripheral production mechanisms but from active selection at a central level. These data provide the most rigorous empirical evidence to date of a bird song that makes use of the same mathematical principles that underlie Western and many non-Western musical scales, demonstrating surprising convergence between human and animal "song cultures." Although there is no evidence that the songs of most bird species follow the overtone series, our findings add to a small but growing body of research showing that a preference for small-integer frequency ratios is not unique to humans. These findings thus have important implications for current debates about the origins of human musical systems and may call for a reevaluation of existing theories of musical consonance based on specific human vocal characteristics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)16616-16621
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Volume111
Issue number46
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 18 Nov 2014

Keywords

  • music
  • birdsong
  • overtones
  • SINGING BEHAVIOR
  • SOUND PRODUCTION
  • DISCRIMINATION
  • CONSONANCE
  • INTERVALS
  • SPEECH

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