Human melody singing by bullfinches (Pyrrhula pyrrula) gives hints about a cognitive note sequence processing


We studied human melody perception and production in a songbird in the light of current concepts from the cognitive neuroscience of music. Bullfinches are the species best known for learning melodies from human teachers. The study is based on the historical data of 15 bullfinches, raised by 3 different human tutors and studied later by Jürgen Nicolai (JN) in the period 1967–1975. These hand-raised bullfinches learned human folk melodies (sequences of 20–50 notes) accurately. The tutoring was interactive and variable, starting before fledging and JN continued it later throughout the birds’ lives. All 15 bullfinches learned to sing alternately melody modules with JN (alternate singing). We focus on the aspects of note sequencing and timing studying song variability when singing the learned melody alone and the accuracy of listening-singing interactions during alternatively singing with JN by analyzing song recordings of 5 different males. The following results were obtained as follows: (1) Sequencing: The note sequence variability when singing alone suggests that the bullfinches retrieve the note sequence from the memory as different sets of note groups (=modules), as chunks (sensu Miller in Psychol Rev 63:81–87, 1956). (2) Auditory–motor interactions, the coupling of listening and singing the human melody: Alternate singing provides insights into the bird’s brain melody processing from listening to the actually whistled part of the human melody by JN to the bird’s own accurately singing the consecutive parts. We document how variable and correctly bullfinches and JN alternated in their singing the note sequences. Alternate singing demonstrates that melody-singing bullfinches did not only follow attentively the just whistled note contribution of the human by auditory feedback, but also could synchronously anticipate singing the consecutive part of the learned melody. These data suggest that both listening and singing may depend on a single learned human melody representation (=coupling between perception and production).

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We thank Christina Meier for very helpful and encouraging comments to improve the presentation of the results. Dr. Jean–Pierre Stockis from the department of mathematics of TU Kaiserslautern gave advices and did the statistical analyses. Thanks are also due to Tim R. Birkhead, Jessica Boffo, Manfred Gahr, Irene M. Pepperberg and Jeffry Tesselink for constructive comments on the earlier drafts and for correcting the English, and to three anonymous referees.

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Correspondence to Hans Rudolf Güttinger.

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Jürgen Nicolai: Deceased in 2006.

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Nicolai, J., Gundacker, C., Teeselink, K. et al. Human melody singing by bullfinches (Pyrrhula pyrrula) gives hints about a cognitive note sequence processing. Anim Cogn 17, 143–155 (2014) doi:10.1007/s10071-013-0647-6

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  • Songbird
  • Melody perception and production
  • Sequencing and timing
  • Auditory–motor interactions
  • Feedback between hearing and singing
  • Internal representation