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Animal Sciences

World-wide Bird Singalong Project: exploring parrot musicality

Is our musicality unique? To find out, the Bird Singalong Project brings together singing parrots from all over the world. Do you have a parrot that sings or whistles along to songs and would you like to help us? Sing up now!

We need your (parrot’s) help

Parrots are great at imitating sounds and can sing along to all kinds of songs. We think they might use a specific skill for this, called relative pitch perception (see box below). To investigate this further, we are looking for parrots that sing or whistle along to songs. Is your parrot an enthusiastic singer? Are you curious about our research? Then join us by registering using the registration form!

We’re interested in all parrots that engage in singing or whistling along to songs. The specific song they perform does not matter: any song will do!

Professor Music cognition Henkjan Honing tells about the project

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Studying the origins of our capacity for music

We are looking for enthusiastic parrot owners who want to contribute to our understanding of musicality: the capacity to perceive, make, and appreciate music. Is musicality a uniquely human capacity? Or is it something we share with many other animals, and hence a capacity that has a long evolutionary history?

This citizen science project is part of a larger research effort to characterise the potential biological basis of musicality. A core component of musicality is relative pitch, a skill that allows us to recognise a certain song or melody, even when it is played a few tones higher or lower, or faster or slower (see box). We humans attend to the relations between the tones, and not to the individual frequencies of each tone. It has long been thought that this ability is what makes humans specifically musical. Interestingly, most birds are particularly good at distinguishing different melodies by their absolute frequencies. They seem to have absolute pitch (which is a rare talent in humans).

Discovering the musical skills of parrots

In this particular project, we are interested to see if this difference in music perception and cognition is one of degree or one of kind. It might well be that birds are more flexible than thought before. Especially if they are singing in their natural or familiar habitat.

We aim to investigate how well parrots recognise and imitate melodies, and, especially, how flexible they are. We invite bird owners to participate in our World-Wide Bird Singalong Project to discover the musical skills of parrots and other songbirds.

We need parrot owners to help us with the following

A video of your signing bird
We would first like to receive a video of your parrot singing a song. You can upload this video in the registration form when applying to participate in our study. We would also like to know how your parrot was taught this song. Did it learn it from a video on social media? Or did you teach it yourself by singing or whistling to your parrot? You can fill in this information on the registration form.

Altered version of the song
We will then analyse the singing of your parrot and create a slightly altered version of the song. This altered version of the song will either be a few notes higher or a few notes lower than the original song your parrot learned. We will contact you and send this altered song back via e-mail.

Playback and recording
Finally, we would like to ask you to playback the altered songs multiple times to your parrot and subsequently record your parrot singing the song again. We would like to receive this video to analyse the singing of your parrot again. We suspect that your parrot will match the pitch changes we made to the song by also singing at a higher or lower pitch than usual. This would potentially mean that your parrot is able to use relative pitch! Something that is rarely found in animals and believed to be unique for humans!

Relative versus absolute pitch

Relative and absolute pitch are two skills that can both be used to perceive and memorise pitch in music. Most animals, as far as we know, use a form of absolute pitch in recognising melodies, most humans use relative pitch. 

Absolute pitch: to recognise a note by its pitch, which is determined by the fundamental frequency of the sound wave.
Absolute pitch, also known as ‘perfect pitch’ refers to being able to recognise a sound by its pitch and label it (is it a C or a D?) without a reference. For someone with ‘perfect pitch’ this goes as effortlessly as most humans label colours. The first part of the skill, memory for pitch, is widespread in humans and animals. Categorising or labelling a pitch, however, is rare in humans (estimated as only 1 in 10,000 people).

Relative pitch: to recognise a song by the interval structure or contour of the melody (is a note higher or lower than the note before?)
Relative pitch means recognising the same tune even if it’s played a few tones higher or lower. We use relative pitch to listen to the relative difference between musical notes. This way, humans can easily recognise a melody that is played a few tones higher or lower than the original. Birds appear to have great difficulty in classifying pitch-shifted sounds.


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