Is Birdsong Music?

Photo by Marius Masalar on Unsplash

I have been searching for reading around musicology, a catch all term that includes the science and history of music as well as lives of the composers.  Although I play an instrument,   I have no real idea how music actually works,  I just tend to do what it says on the page.   The difficulty is though that music is, well, difficult; technical and mathematical.    What I need is someone very clever who can explain things on my level.

Enter Tom Service.

I’ve just bought The Listening Service:  101 Journeys Through the Musical Universe by Tom Service who writes and presents for BBC Radio 3.  The book is composed of a series of short pieces on a particular musical topic, followed at the end  by listening suggestions to illustrate the point.  So for example, titles like:

Is music a universal language?  (Answer yes but sadly not one that can be used to the exclusion of speech patterns, since it would be difficult to order a pint of milk).

Is birdsong music? (no, not really, too fast and too high to be accurately transcribed and yes, because listening to it transports us).

There are pieces on chord structures and intervals which is when I start to glaze over a bit but it’s not too terrifying.

For example, intervals of fifths.  I know what one is but I have no idea what function it performs.

The author says – “the fifth is the most resonant interval after the octave”


“the essential quality of the fifth allows it to inspire divine contemplations.”  It also offers up haunted lament such as when played on the military bugle  (The Last Post)  and Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra.

On Intervals of thirds:

There is the major third eg The Everly Brothers harmonies in ‘Bye Bye Love’


the minor third “an interval that is just a semitone shorter than its major cousin but in that difference lies an ocean of emotional and cultural associations.”

eg Brahms Symphony No 4 in E minor.

There is a podcast linked to the book and QR codes at the top of each new chapter take you through to a relevant episode.


Classical music has always been my first love.  Yes I listened to the Beatles and the Manics and Queen and all those trendy folk but to me Rachmaninov got there first.  Yet what exactly is ‘classical music’?  This is a question that Service asks in his book.  I thought it was obvious.   It’s Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, all those guys isn’t it?  But as well as imbibing the music that our parents listened to or played,  apparently we also imbibed the classifications foisted on us by record shops and others.  At least that is his theory.

Tom Service is against the use of the term ‘classical music’.  It is not an accurate term and doesn’t refer to the classical period.   Does the term classical then reflect the accepted canon of music?  No, because much of it wasn’t when first performed.  Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring quite literally brought the house down – and not in a good way when it had its first outing in 1913.   Sergei Prokoviev’s 2nd Piano Concerto when first performed in May 1913 was met with hisses and catcalls.  Things that were considered riotous, risk taking and challenging have become venerated and mainstream.   So wherefore classical?  Service says it’s just something that grew up with all the hushed bowings and kowtowings and –  let’s face it –  undiluted snobbery, that has followed music around from  the rise of the boursoisie to present day; from Concertgebouw to Musikverein to Barbican et al.


I can’t leave the topic of music without pointing out that two of my favourite books on the planet are accounts of the lives of musicians.

Julian Barnes The Noise of Time.  A masterly if fictionalised account of the tenuous life of the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and his battle to survive under Stalin’s regime.

In 2016, reviewing Barnes’s book, Alec Preston wrote in The Guardian:

“As with all great novels, though – and make no mistake, this is a great novel, Barnes’s masterpiece – the particular and intimate details of the life under consideration beget questions of universal significance: the operation of power upon art, the limits of courage and endurance, the sometimes intolerable demands of personal integrity and conscience.”

I reviewed the book on the life of the great Catalan cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973) Joys and Sorrows by Albert E. Kahn here.  I’ve talked about this book before and I shall probably go on talking about it because it is so wonderful.

The stories of Shostakovich the famed composer and Casals  the cellist are not without parallels.  The two men were alive at the same time and lived through the upheavals of the second world war and its aftermath.     Stalin as Shostie well knew – could have decided to do away with him at any time.   If there could have been anything worse than living in Russia under Stalin as an ordinary person, it must have been living in Russia as a famous conductor.  While Pablo Casals, an ardent supporter of democracy in Spain,  was forced to flee Franco’s dictatorship and spent thirty years of his life in exile in France.  He refused to perform in countries which supported Franco’s regime.

The great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was a student of Casals, but I cannot trace any reference of the Shostie and Casals ever having met.

Can anyone recommend more books on musical subjects ?



3 thoughts on “Is Birdsong Music?

  1. This was an interesting and thought-provoking post. I am no expert, but I want to believe that birdsong is music (it is melodic and music should not be confined only to something that can be musically transcribed). I will try now to look for the two music biographies you recommend, though I am still on the fence regarding Service’s book.

    I started listening to classical music on the daily basis only when I started learning the piano, and though I listen to other genres (my iPod has everything from hard rock and metal to jazz), classical music has now become my favourite. My music non-fiction reading has also intensified. I went through Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Satie biographies, but now want to read more pianist biographies, and have taken out Glenn Gould’s one. An illustrated non-fiction “All of Music: The Life and Times of the Great Composers: 1000 Years of Classical Music”, edited by Vladimir Ashkenazy, has left a deep impression on me recently, as well. I imagined the popular writings of music critic Harold C. Schonberg would open to me something otherworldly, but, strangely, his books were a bit of a hit-and-miss with me, and I am also on a lookout for interesting music non-fiction (or music-inspired fiction).

    1. Thank you for this Diana. I completely understand your reserve regarding Service’s book as it can tend toward over simplification to condense complex musical matters into a page or two. I shall definitely look out a copy of the ‘1000 years of…’. It sounds amazing. I saw Ashkenazy conduct once.