Do Birds Sing Music or Merely Make Sounds?

January 1, 2013

In a few recent discussions with some friends and one family member, I discovered that some people hold that birds do not sing music but merely make sounds. This post explores this issue and shows why I believe that position is not tenable.

Perhaps some would argue that a single bird that produces sounds of only one pitch does not sing music. While that may technically be true, a single bird that produces sounds of more than one pitch, however, would produce music. Furthermore, two or more birds that produce sounds of at least two different pitches certainly would produce music.

Beyond the issue of producing sounds of multiple pitches, another reason that some doubt that birds sing music concerns their perspective that birds lack the necessary creative abilities to do so.

DO BIRDS INHERENTLY LACK THE CREATIVE ABILITIES NECESSARY TO PRODUCE MUSIC?

Because birds are subhuman creatures, is it valid to hold that they therefore inherently lack the creative abilities that are necessary to produce music? Based on the implications of several passages that record certain activities of animals, including some about birds, I believe that this position is highly questionable.

Before the Fall

A serpent spoke to Eve and tempted her to do evil (Gen. 3:1; 4-5). Although we have no other data to work with about the abilities of animals before the fall, there is no clear reason that I am aware of that we must hold that the serpent’s actions were a unique instance of such activity.

Furthermore, God created birds (Gen. 1:20-21) before He created man (Gen. 1:26-28). In their unfallen state, surely their abilities far exceeded their present abilities to create sounds of varying pitches.

After the Fall

Two passages about animal activities after the Fall of man also support holding that birds do sing music and not just make sounds.

Numbers 22

The account of Balaam’s interaction with his donkey records another occasion when an animal interacted verbally with humans. The donkey saw the Angel of the Lord standing in front of it with a sword and responded accordingly (Num. 22:23). The passage provides no indication that the donkey’s seeing the Angel or its reacting to the threat that He posed to the donkey were supernatural, out-of-the-ordinary occurrences.

The donkey responded similarly two more times (Num. 22:25, 27), and on each occasion, Balaam responded by striking it (Num. 22:23, 25, 27). The Lord then opened its mouth (Num. 22:28), and she asked Balaam what she had done so that he had stricken her three times (Num. 22:28).

Balaam accused the donkey of abusing him (Num. 22:29). The donkey then reasoned with Balaam and elicited a response from him that implied that he had erred in his treatment of her (Num. 22:29b).

The Lord then enabled Balaam to see the Angel of the Lord standing before him (Num. 22:31). The Angel then asked him why he had stricken his donkey three times (Num. 22:32) and explained that the donkey’s actions actually saved his life (Num. 22:32-33).

Although some would argue that the entire account is exceptional, the text only indicates that the Lord’s allowing the donkey to speak and Balaam to see the Angel were supernatural in nature. The passage provides no explicit textual basis for holding that the donkey’s ability to reason with Balaam (after the Lord had opened its mouth) was also supernatural in nature.

Psalm 104

In a glorious Psalm that praises God for His creation and His providential care for it, an unknown psalmist writes, “By them shall the fowls of the heaven have their habitation, which sing among the branches” (104:12; KJV). Although the Hebrew does not employ a term that specifies a musical activity, the context makes clear that singing is plainly in view here (cf. other important modern translations that also render the Hebrew verb as sing: NKJ, NIV, ESV, CSB).

Several commentators take Psalm 104:12 as an important statement about music:

“The birds, also, in their nests among the branches are able to pour forth their melodious notes as the result of the God-directed valley-springs. Singing among the branches should inspire us to sing where we dwell—even if it be like Paul and Silas in a prison cell. . . . Said Izaak Walton, great lover of birds, especially the nightingale, ‘Lord, what music hast thou provided for the saints in heaven, when thou affordest bad men such music on earth?’” (Herbert Lockyer, Sr., Psalms: A Devotional Commentary, 409).

“Among them the fowls of the air dwell. That is, among the trees which spring up by the fountains and water-courses. The whole picture is full of animation and beauty. . . . Which sing among the branches. Marg. as in Heb., give a voice. Their voice is heard—their sweet music—in the foliage of the trees which grow on the margin of the streams and by the fountains” (Albert Barnes, Notes on the Old Testament: Explanatory and Practical, 9:85).

“’Everything lives whithersoever water cometh,’ as Easterners know. Therefore round the drinking-places in the vales thirsty creatures gather, birds flit and sing; up among the cedars are peaceful nests, and inaccessible cliffs have their sure-footed inhabitants. All depend on water, and water is God’s gift. The psalmist’s view of Nature is characteristic in the direct ascription of all the processes to God” (Alexander MacLaren, The Psalms, 3:116).

“How refreshing are these words! What happy memories they arouse of plashing waterfalls and entangled boughs, where the merry din of the falling and rushing water forms a solid background of music, and the sweet tuneful notes of the birds are the brighter and more flashing lights in harmony. Pretty birdies, sing on! What better can ye do, and who can do it better? When we too drink of the river of God, and eat of the fruit of the tree of life, it well becomes us to ‘sing among the branches.’ Where ye dwell ye sing; and shall not we rejoice in the Lord, who has been our dwelling-place in all generations. As ye fly from bough to bough, ye warble forth your notes, and so will we as we flit through time into eternity. It is not meet that birds of Paradise should be outdone by birds of the earth” (Charles Spurgeon, Treasury of David, 2:305).

“The music of the birds was the first song of thanksgiving which was offered from the earth, before man was formed” (John Wesley; cited in Explanatory Notes and Quaint Sayings on 104:12 in Treasury of David, 2:319).

 “They sing, according to their capacity, to the honour of their Creator and benefactor, and their singing may shame our silence” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, 893).

The accounts about animal activity in Numbers 22 and Psalm 104 support holding that birds sing music and not just make sounds.

In the future

A remarkable future occasion of universal worship of both God the Father and the Lamb will include verbal praise from every creature in heaven, in the earth, under the earth, and in the sea:

Rev 5:13 And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.

Some commentators hold that this reference does not literally refer to subhuman creatures such as birds giving praise to God because they believe strongly that they lack the intellectual capacity to do so (e.g., Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 407). In view of the passages treated above, this seems to me to be a dubious position.

CONCLUSION

Given the available biblical data, I conclude that birds do sing music and not merely make sounds. I would appreciate hearing from those who disagree so that I can further my understanding of this matter.

Rajesh

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