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May23

Learning from the song of the warbler

by Bev Foster

One sure sign of spring is the sound of the birds. From early dawn, birdsongs fill the air. If I pause to mindfully listen, the distinct pitch, patterns and rhythms identify which birds are nearby. Birdjam helps me learn the songs of the birds and match the song with the bird.

Recently, a distinctive warbler’s song was sung in our trees and it made me think about birdsongs and songs in general and how they interface with life.

Birdsong has become an interest of neuroscientists because songbirds are a model organism to study the neural basis for things like speech development and learning, spatial memory, and social behaviours. For example, one study uses songbirds to look at the neural regulation of the motivation to communicate. Evidence suggests that in songbirds, neurochemicals like dopamine and opioid neuropeptides are found in brain regions implicated in motivation and reward and play a role in whether the song is sung to attract females (female-directed) or is not directed towards others (undirected)[i] .

Songs have an intrinsic connection with life: the sentiments we feel like love, thankfulness, sadness or the way we recollect culture and historical events. Songs helps us express our deepest feelings, thoughts and spiritual practices. Songs are used intentionally at special events like weddings, funerals, and parties.

I love how music therapist, Kenneth Bruscia, describes how song accompanies us on our journey and how they, in fact, become the diaries of our lives.

Songs are our connections to life. They connect us to our inner world; they bring us closer to others; they keep us company when we are alone. They articulate our beliefs and reaffirm our values. They arouse, they accompany and they release. And as the years pass, our songs bear witness to our lives and give voice to our experiences. They rekindle the past, reflect the present and project the future. Songs weave tales of our joys and sorrow; they express our dreams and disappointments, our fears and triumphs. They are our musical diaries, our life stories. They are the sounds of our development [ii].

The song of the warbler has made me pay more attention to the songs I’m singing, writing, and listening to. What do they mean in the context of my journey? What do they reflect about what I believe, value, and what I’m trying to say? How has my song developed over the years?

For me, songs are important. They encapsulate my feelings, thoughts or beliefs and often motivate an inner response, i.e. I Will Remember You, Climb Every Mountain, Here I am to Worship.

When I write a song, it usually comes out of an experience – mine or somebody else’s. It may be observational, personal, motivational – but there’s something universal and human about the song that connects me and hopefully others to the textures of the experience.

I hope that I’ve become a better listener to other people’s songs. Less judgmental, and less musically critical (unfortunately, this seems to be a common practise among people with intense musical education). I hope that I am more understanding of people’s stories and of human experience – longings, disappointments, and celebrations.

Deep thoughts. Profound learning from the song of the warbler.



[i] Riters, LV. Neuroscience Biobehaviors Rev. 2011, Oct:35(9): 1837-1845

[ii] Bruscia, K. 1989. Defining Music Therapy. Barcelona Publishers