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Mozart's Starling
Meredith J. West
Andrew P. King

Page 4

Tyson's analysis of the original score of K. 522 indicates that it was not written during June 1787, but composed in fragments between 1784 and 1787, including an excerpt from K. 453. This period coincides with Mozart's relationship with the starling. A common interpretation is that A Musical Joke was meant to caricature the kinds of music popular in Mozart's day.

Writing such music, a course of action urged on him by his father, might have earned Mozart more money. And thus, the composition has also been interpreted in regard to the father/son relationship (25). Tyson disputes this view on the basis of the physical nature of the autograph score, as much of it was written before Leopold's death, and the lack of solid evidence that Mozart's relationship with his father was bitter enough to cause him to commemorate his first and foremost teacher with a parody.

Although we do not presume to explain all the layers of compositional complexity contained in K. 522, we propose that some of its starling-like qualities are pertinent to understanding Mozart's intentions in writing it. Given the propensities of the starlings we studied and the character and habits of Mozart, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that some of the fragments of K. 522 originated in Mozart's interactions with the starling during its three-year tenure. The completion of the work eight days after the bird's death might then have been motivated by Mozart's desire to fashion an appropriate musical farewell, a requiem of sorts for his avian friend.

Last words

We have offered these observations on starlings and on Mozart for two reasons. First, to give music scholars new insights with which to evaluate one of the world's most studied composers. The analyses of the autograph scores and recent reinterpretations of Mozart's illnesses and death demonstrate the power of present-day knowledge to inform our understanding of the past. We have provided the profile of captive starlings as another way to gain perspective on Mozart's genius.

Second, we hope to spark further interest in the analysis of the social stimulation of vocal learning. Although the role of social companions in motivating avian vocal learning is now well established, the mechanisms by which social influence exerts its effects have only begun to be articulated (26). Part of the problem is defining the nature of social contexts. To say birds interact is to say something quite vague. Interact how? By fighting? By feeding? By flocking? By sitting next to one another? Measuring sound waves is easy compared to calibrating degrees of social influence. Moreover, social signals are multi-modal. The species described here make much use of visual, as well as vocal, stimulation. By what means do they link sights and sounds? Why are only certain linkages made? Answering these questions is the next challenge for students of communication.

One of the founders of the study of bird song, W. H. Thorpe, speculated that birds' imitation of sounds represents a quite simple cognitive process: "The essence of the point may be summed up by saying that while it is very difficult for a human being (and perhaps impossible for an animal) to see himself as others see him, it is much less difficult for him to hear himself as others hear him"

(27). Although we recognize the law of parsimony in Thorpe's remark, we are led by the evidence to seek a phylogenetic middle ground between self-awareness and vocal matching. We propose that some birds use acoustic probes to test the contingent properties of their environment, an interpretation largely in keeping with concepts of communication as processes of social negotiation and manipulation (28). An analogy with the capacities of echo-locating animals may be appropriate. Like bats or dolphins emitting sounds to estimate distance, some birds may bounce sounds off the animate environment, using behavioral reverberations to gauge the effects of their vocal efforts. They are not using Thorpe's behavioral mirror, necessary for self-reflection, but instead a social sounding board with which to shape functional repertoires.

In the case of our starlings, we also conclude that social sonar works two ways: human caregivers cast many sounds in the direction of their starlings and were often educated by the messages returned. The mimicry of vocal acts such as lip noises, sniffs, and throat clearing brought to the attention of caregivers routine dimensions of their own behavior that they rarely took notice of. The birds' echoing of greetings, farewells, and words of affection conveyed a sense of shared environment with another species, a sensation hard to forget. The caregivers' sadness in response to the illnesses, absence, or death of their avian companions also suggests that they had been beguiled by the chance to glimpse a bird's-eye view of the world. Most found themselves at a loss for words. And thus we turn to Mozart for fitting emotional expressions, his poem, his Musical Joke, and his appropriately grand burial for a "starling bird."

Meredith J. West and Andrew P. King received their PhD.s from the Department of Psychology at Cornell University. Meredith West is a professor of psychology at Indiana University, and Andrew King is a research associate professor at Duke University. Their research interests include learning, development, and communication.

Published in "American Scientist" --March-April 1990

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Some additional reading:

Mozart's Muse

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Piano Concerto 17