Have you ever played in a band with a lead singer who changes the way he or she sings in the presence of an attractive member of the audience, or what might be called a “potential mate?” You know what I’m talking about: the singing gets a little louder, maybe more embellished and dramatic. I chose that phrase “potential mate” deliberately because it turns out there’s a lot of biology related to how we sing and why.
During the early weeks of the COVID quarantine period, I read a book called The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman. It’s a great book in general but I was particularly struck by chapter five, which is all about bird songs, and how and why birds sing the way they do. It turns out that it definitely matters to birds who is in the audience. Male birds are doing their best work when females are listening, because in the bird world, a female will select her mate partially based on the quality of the male’s singing. That certainly adds some performance pressure, especially in spring breeding season (or if you prefer, “early festival season”). Ackerman explains, “If he’s singing alone, he’s in tune-up mode. This is his undirected song. But if a female is around, he’ll muster his best version and sing it over and over in directed song.” And, for less talented birds: “Even if he’s still at a stage where his singing is poor, he manages to direct his motor mechanisms to produce as good a song as possible.” Sound familiar?
What are the specific qualities in a singer that female birds are looking for? I know I used to pride myself on knowing a lot of songs, which is also the mockingbird’s claim to fame, but it turns out this is overrated. For the females, “assessing how many songs a suitor sings is a difficult and time-consuming task. It’s far easier to gauge how well he does from just a single song or two.” Being able to pull out one long song, the bird equivalent of The Hills of Roane County, can be advantageous: “Studies show that females of many songbird species prefer to mate with males that sing faster,” (think northern bluegrass), “or longer, or boast a more complex song.” This could also be a strong argument for Peter Rowan’s Land of the Navajo.
Just as different members of an audience are attracted to different kinds of songs, different bird species have their own ideas about what makes a song “sexy.” According to Ackerman, “Female swamp sparrows and domesticated canaries favor trill rates nearing the limit of possible performance,” (see Land of the Navajo above) “while zebra finches lust for loud songs” (e.g. Dave Evans’ version of 99 Years is Almost For Life).
This one was confusing at first: “Others, such as canaries, are turned on by ‘sexy’ syllables.” I was wondering if the third verse of Mule Skinner Blues qualified, but then Ackerman explained: “A syllable is sexy when a male bird uses his syrinx to sing with two different voices at once. In a sense, it’s like he’s singing a duet with himself.” Now you know why the guy who can do that train whistle imitation always get the girl.
If you’ve always thought that singing in tune was important, it is to the female songbird audience, too, according to Ackerman and Duke University vocal researcher Erich Jarvis: “What makes a female swoon in the end is how well a male controls the tempo and precision of his notes, whether in a long, complex song, or in a short, sexy syllable.”
Is the purpose of singing, though, purely to impress the female and become “the chosen one?” Does a singer get any enjoyment out of it himself? The answer turns out to be yes. Male songbirds will sometimes sing, especially in the fall, purely for the dual rewards of dopamine and opioids, which are released in their brains. Apparently the better they sing, the more of these pleasurable chemicals are released. And you were perhaps thinking it was necessary to take up running or attend certain music festivals to achieve this result.
I guess what this all means, is that before we get too high and mighty about the wholesomeness of our genre, the purity of our art, or our motivations for practicing it, we should acknowledge that for many, biologically speaking, it’s still all about singing for the sex and drugs.