Music of the Birds & Bees


The natural world has always served as a source of inspiration for poets and painters. And for composers, too. They find the grandest of Nature's wonders – mountains, rivers, forests and oceans – to be endlessly inspiring. But so too are the sounds of animals in our midst, particularly the delightful singing of birds, and even the annoying buzzing of bees. In this Active Minds program (appropriately presented in the midst of spring), we'll sample music inspired by these familiar flying creatures, through instrumental and vocal works by composers both ancient and modern – from the Baroque to the Beatles.


There is music in nature, if you listen closely. The whoosh of the wind, the welcoming sound of a summer rain, the crash of ocean waves against the rocks, the unending rush of water in a fast-moving stream. And then, there are the sounds of living things – the animals of the forests and meadows, the buzzing of insects, the singing of birds. Since music is about sound, it should come as no surprise that composers (and a few song-writers) have been attracted to the music of nature. That can be quite a challenge, using instruments only to copy those animal sounds. Song-writers have had it easier, using words to describe those sounds. Remember Maurice Chevalier crooning, “Every little breeze seems to whisper Louise”? A nice image, but not nearly as compelling as a piano piece by French Impressionist composer Claude Debussy, vividly describing the wind blowing over the plains. The most impressive capturing of nature's wonders can be found in the magical orchestral works of such masters as Vivaldi, Beethoven, Vaughan Williams, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, Ravel and other symphonic magicians. While re-creating the sound of wind or rushing water can prove an immense challenge, it's probably a lot easier duplicating songs of the birds. A twittering flute can imitate a goldfinch without much difficulty. And the incessant two-note call of the cuckoo is  copied effectively with a clarinet. If we look further, we can find music inspired by the flight of birds, played by the soaring strains of a single violin in Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending. The clucking of barnyard hens has been subject material heard in a Baroque harpsichord piece – later translated into an orchestral setting by the early 20th-Century Italian composer Ottorino Respighi. He took matters even further in his colorful description of a forest of Roman pines by incorporating actual recordings of birds calling to each other among the trees. Is that a form of cheating? Why not do as Beethoven did by assigning a different wind instrument to a different bird: the flute as nightingale, the oboe imitating the quail and, of course, the clarinet sounding the two-note song of the cuckoo at the end of the composer's visit to the woods outside of Vienna featured in his Sixth Symphony). So, we've taken care of the birds – but what about the annoying buzzing of bees? Most famous of all the bee music is a fun little piece by Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, heard in a charming scene from one of his operas. The Flight of the Bumblebee has been transcribed for all manner of instruments, sometimes with goofy results. The tuba player in the Canadian Brass played it on his low, un-beelike instrument. Those six men of the King's Singers did a wonderful vocal interpretation of this lightning-fast music. But the Russian's original scoring for orchestra best captures the sound of an annoying bee. Just as a violin captured the flight of a lark, the same instrument was used to portray the unending flight of a bee in a little piece by another Austrian named Schubert: François. These works, and so many others, remind us of the ability of composers to convert the sights and sounds of our world into inventive, and often beautiful, pieces of music.

Exploration Questions

  • Who was George Meredith and what was his contribution to music?
  • What is the significance of the goldfinch in Biblical teachings?
  • What is the story told in the Greek play The Wasps?
  • Mozart once owned a pet starling. Which of his compositions was supposedly inspired by the bird's song?
  • Who was Olivier Messiaen, and how did bird songs figure in his works?

Reflective Questions

  • Of all the melodious songs of birds, which is your favorite?
  • Why have birds and bees somehow become linked to “The Facts of Life”?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Elliott, Lang. Music of the Birds. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 1999. 135 pages. A delightful and informative examination of the subject, filled with valuable information, references to about 100 species of singing birds, dozens of gorgeous photographs by the author and, as a charming addition, a CD of bird songs.
    Click here to order