Bird Song Composing at Home (Young Instrumentalists) >

Compose melodies inspired by bird song. Inspired by Oiseaux Exotiques by composer Olivier Messiaen.

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Bird song

The French composer Olivier Messiaen was fascinated by bird song and used it in many of his compositions. 

More recently, composer Shiori Usui used bird song in her piece The Silent Forest composed in response to climate change. Here, in Dawn Chorus, the violin is asked to improvise using pitch and rhythm ideas:

Shiori silent forest vioin excerpt 2

In this activity we are going to use bird song to help us make a melody. Below is the song of a Tree Pipit.

This is how I drew it's song:

graphic 1 bird song 2

Which could sound like this:

Your Turn!

Listen to some birds from HERE or from The British Library HERE or listen in your garden. Pick a bird song that you like. Listen carefully to the shape of the song. Does it go high or low? Listen to the rhythm. Are there any repeated notes? Is there silence or gaps? Some are very complex but others are much simpler repeating ideas.

Now try and draw the shape of the bird song or skip this bit to try and imitate it on your instrument. Try to show how the pitch and rhythm changes with your drawing. I was surprised how difficult this was and how many times I needed to listen. Don't worry about getting it exactly right - that is not important - you just want to find an interesting shape. Listen to a few before deciding which to do. 

Once you have drawn your shape, try to play it using your instrument. Try to show the ups and down and different rhythms. Again, it is not important to be exact but to use the bird song as a starting point. 

Once you have created your short melody, you can start to play with it by:

  • Stretching (make longer) or squashing (make shorter) some or all of the notes
  • Playing with the dynamics - how loud or soft it is
  • Stretching or squashing the intervals (the distance between two consecutive notes)
  • Faster and slower versions or getting faster/getting slower versions
  • Repeating some of the pattern two or more times
  • Making it more ‘red, green, azure, yellow, shiny’ etc. 

You could make a longer melody from the different ways you have found to play your bird song, or you listen to more bird songs and do the activity again. Then you could make a longer piece of music by using your different bird songs. 

In Shiori Usui's piece The Silent Forest, the bird song becomes lower in pitch as the piece progresses with more silence in between each idea. Shiori found out that when deforestation happens, not only are their fewer birds, but also the bird's songs have been found to be lower in pitch. You could use this idea in your music too.



For some beautiful birds to colour in, click HERE. Created by artists from Birmingham and the Black Country for Action for Refugees.