Oiseaux Exotiques - Messiaen Composing with Contemporary Music (Teachers) >

Composing using bird song inspired by Oiseaux Exotiques by Olivier Messiaen. 

Activity Panel

Programme Note

Composer Olivier Messiaen became seriously interested in birdsong in 1952. One of his first works exploring birdsong Réveil des oiseaux,composed in 1953, depicted a dawn chorus of French birds.

When composing Oiseaux Exotiques, Messiaen he listened to gramophone recordings of American birds. At first he was going to use only American birds but on a visit to a French bird market he heard songs of birds from all over the world.  He was so enthralled by them that he visited the market for many days to try to transcribe their songs.

The piece is fifteen minutes long and is for piano solo, woodwind, brass and percussion.  It includes the songs of forty-eight birds from China, India, Malaysia, North America and the Canary IslandsOn page four is a list of the forty-eight birds Messiaen uses in the piece. Many of them can be heard hereIn the preface to the piece Messiaen describes in words some of the many birdsongs and explains that he has brought together birds from many different places that usually would not be heard together. 

As well as bird song, Messiaen also uses ancient Greek and Hindu rhythms in the piece. 



In this resource the children will parallel some of Messiaen’s composing process: listening and transcribing bird song for musical instruments; varying and orchestrating them in different ways; learning and using Greek and Hindu rhythmic patterns; thinking about how to structure the different musical materials generated.

Learning Objectives

  • To be able to transform extra-musical ideas into musical ideas
  • To be able to graphically notate musical ideas
  • To be able to create variations of musical ideas using a range of techniques
  • To understand how the same musical material (birdsongs) can be used compositionally in a of range ways – as a cadenza, as a texture, with other rhythmic material etc.
  • To be able to structure different kinds of musical material into a longer piece

Please listen to Oiseaux Exotiques and read the Music Maze Guidance before starting.


Resources Needed

  • Tuned percussion and/or children’s own instruments
  • Bells/gongs/triangles (metal), woodblocks/log drums/claves/temple blocks (wood) and drums (skins)
  • Birdsong, variation, rhythm and orchestration sheets


Learning some Messiaen Birdsongs from Oiseaux Exotiques

Listen to the following bird calls played by BCMG musicians or perform them yourself to the children. Alternatively, choose your own three bird calls from the piece.

Ask the children, as a whole group, individually or in pairs, to copy the bird calls using tuned percussion or their own instrument. It is not important for them to use exactly the same notes. Do however encourage them to listen to how high or low the pitches are and achieve the overall contour. Collectively create some graphic images to describe each bird call. Use this as an opportunity to discuss how pitch, speed, duration, silences, repetition etc. might be represented graphically.

Some of these bird calls recreated by your group could be used in the final piece.

The 48 birds to be heard in Oiseaux Exotiques

Listening To and Creating Birdsong Shapes

When composing Oiseaux Exotiques, Messiaen used recordings of bird song as well as listening to the birds in the French market. Listen and watch Messiaen describing and demonstrating how he moves from the actual sound of the bird to an instrument, in this case, the piano.

In pairs, with headphones, ask the children to listen to and draw the shapes of 6 bird songs on the selection below using the website http://macaulaylibrary.org/search. This could be done in a computer lab.

birds compliation


In the video below, one of the children attending one of our Music Maze workshops, shows his drawings of birdsong.

Ask the children to choose one birdsong each and using their memory and the graphic image, imitate it using tuned percussion or their own instrument. Encourage them to get as close as possible to the original, to use extended techniques etc.

Create a whole class/group dawn chorus by:

  • pointing to individual children to play their birdsong
  • asking the children to listen and wait for a space to play (maybe limiting number of times played)
  • asking the children to count slowly to 10 between each rendition of their birdsong – encouraging them to start at different times

Depending on the number of children in the group, you may need to modify these instructions to create the full effect of a dawn chorus.

Organising the Different Birdsongs

In groups of 3-5, ask the children to learn to play each other’s birdsongs. Encourage them to make them as bold, distinctive and characterful as possible.

Once they have done this, ask the group to try out different ways of using their birdsongs from ideas below or from the structures guide resource sheet. Click HERE for the resource sheet. Once they have done this, ask them to choose one or two of the ideas to develop their birdsongs into a short piece.

All these compositional ideas are taken from Oiseaux Exotiques.  If the groups have more time they can try out more ideas and arrange them into a longer piece.

Above some examples created at a BCMG Family Music Maze.


All play the same birdsong at the same time but not necessarily with the same notes.


Divide up one bird song and decide which instrument(s) plays which bit of the shape/melody.


Using some or all of your bird songs, order them to make a sequence. You can repeat them and have more than one person playing each shape. 

X + 1

X number of children play one birdsong together and one child plays a different one. Both bird songs can be repeated. 


Everyone plays the same bird song at the same time but each creates and plays a different variation of it. 


Everyone plays a different birdsong at different times to create a texture. The birdsong can be repeated as many times as desired.

Solo Birdsong Cadenzas (optional)

In Oiseaux Exotiques there are six solo piano cadenzas.

A cadenza is an extended solo improvised or written out ornamented passage which is usually rhythmically free. It is an opportunity for displaying virtuosity and for playing around with musical material from the rest of the piece. 

Ask the children to use their original bird song as the basis for an improvisational cadenza. Messiaen makes a big point about the colours of the birds he has chosen. Maybe this could be something the children think about in their improvisations. This could be an activity for those children who need extending or you could have some of the group doing this whilst others complete the next activity.


To support the children creating their improvisations ask them to think about these possibilities:

  • Stretching (make longer) or squashing (make shorter) some or all of the durations
  • Playing around with the dynamics
  • Stretching or squashing the pitch contours (make the intervals between notes bigger or smaller)
  • Faster and slower versions or getting faster/getting slower versions
  • Repeating some of the pattern two or more times
  • Changing the articulation
  • Making it more ‘red, green, azure, yellow’ etc. (whatever this might mean to the children!)

Greek and Hindu Rhythms

Messiaen uses ancient Greek and Hindu rhythms in Oiseaux Exotiques. These provide a stable rhythmic framework which contrast with the free rhythms of the birdsong.

Messiaen learnt about these rhythms from books, not from any direct experience and as a result does not follow any ‘rules’ about their authentic use. Instead he uses them as ostinatos, augments and diminishes them and uses them in canon and retrograde.

Teach the children the three rhythms on the next page (click HERE to download), all of which appear in the piece. See if you can make some connection with the instruments you use in class with the percussion instruments Messiean used.

Percussion list for Oiseaux Exotiques: a glockenspiel, 3 gongs, a snare drum, a tam-tam, temple blocks, a wood block and a xylophone. You could use: bells/gongs/triangles (metal), woodblocks/log drums/claves/temple blocks (wood) and drums (skins).

The children don't need to understand music notation, they just need to count the number of beats indicated. It would be a helpful if you conduct the beats to support the children’s counting.

Practice playing the rhythms at different speeds (mimicking augmentation and diminution). Divide the group into three (make sure that children from the small group activity are still in the same groups): metal, wood and skin.

Allot a different rhythm to each group and nominate a conductor for each one. Allow time for each group to practice at different speeds with the conductor deciding on the speed, counting the group in and keeping the pulse. You could ask them to try playing the rhythms backwards as well.

Now as a whole group, but still divided into three, try:

  • Sequencing the rhythms in different orders decided by the children. 
  • Layering the rhythms with each as repeating ostinatos 
  • Create a canon of the three rhythms with each rhythm repeating as an ostinato

The children can choose to use the fast or slow versions and the forwards or backwards versions. 

Rhythm sheet augmented Nishankalila

Putting it all together

The group now has lots of different kinds of musical material (don’t worry if you don’t have all of these):

  1. Three whole group birdsongs from Oiseaux Exotiques
  2. Individual birdsongs in their original form (dawn chorus) 
  3. Solo birdsong cadenzas 
  4. Small group birdsong pieces 
  5. Three rhythmic patterns inspired by Greek and Hindu Rhythms

Ask each child or pair of children to plan a longer piece or plan as a whole group on large pieces of paper or mini white boards. Make sure you discuss this first, asking the children to think about:

  • Beginnings and endings
  • Contrast and overall shape
  • The direction/journey of the music

Try out some of the children's ideas and discuss as a group. If there is time, refine them based on the discussion or ask the children to refine. If the different bits of musical material are recorded as you go along, the children could use the software Audacity to realise their composition. Click HERE for our simple guide to Audacity. 

Listen to the music created by children at Music Maze: