Silence and chaos and birds in between

Diagrammatic representation of a wren song

Jay Richardson

by Jay Richardson
Sunday 1st May 2022


A dawn chorus contains so much joyful chaos: that’s what makes it a chorus. For pure density of sound, most green spaces at dawn in springtime could give Piccadilly Circus a run for its money. To record an isolated individual, then, you need either a parabolic dish—which hardly produces the most realistic sound image—or a bird claiming a small corner of the soundscape for itself. Which this wren has managed handily.

The phrases of its song occur at less regular time intervals than a robin’s, but with incredibly similar phrases. You could be forgiven for thinking the last seven are all identical copies of each other. In fact, they pretty much are: this chart gives you a basic idea of the variations between each phrase, showing how they evolve over time. On close listening the fourth and the sixth to twelfth phrases are all identical. From the first to the fourth phrase, the bird builds up its song, tweaks it a bit, and then hits its stride and sings seven repetitions before trying yet another small variation at the end of the recording.

The song’s gradual evolution makes it sound like some kind of lengthy philosophical exposition: earnest, elaborate, and sometimes a little hard to follow, despite all the repetition, like a Socratic dialogue. Wrens usually keep quite close to the ground, but they’re also famously loud birds, despite their tiny size: singing takes a whole-body effort. That sense of conviction certainly comes across in how effectively the bird takes centre stage in the soundscape.

Sonograph of the recording over four lines in the frequency range 3-10kHz. Brightness on the sonograph correlates with loudness in the recording.

The silences contribute to that sense of grandiosity, the feeling that this singer has all the sonic space it could possibly need and can give its song plenty of breathing room. They change its character completely, offsetting its quickness, colour, and virtuosity. As Alex Ross memorably wrote of the American composer Morton Feldman’s works, “the sounds animate the surrounding silence.”