Timeline: Mozart's Starling

Feb 25, 2019

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart loved birds. His letters to family and friends mention several pet canaries he had during the course of his life, but the most famous bird Mozart ever owned was his beloved starling.

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The story goes that Mozart frequented a pet store in Vienna and became enamored with a particular European Starling. These birds have an uncanny ability to mimic vocal sounds and presumably Mozart taught the bird to recite the opening melody of the third movement of his Piano Concerto no. 17 in G major. Mozart purchased the bird on May 27, 1784. We know this because he marked it in an expense book, along with a transcription of the bird’s version of Mozart’s melody – which had a couple of mistakes. The mistakes didn’t matter to Mozart. In the book, after the transcription, Mozart wrote the words, “That was beautiful!”

A few years after he bought the starling, Mozart’s father, Leopold, passed away. The two had had a tumultuous relationship and Mozart was either unable or unwilling to attend the funeral. A week later, the starling passed away as well. Mozart threw a lavish memorial service complete with veiled mourners, a tombstone, congregational hymns and a reading of a verse that he had written for the occasion…

A little fool lies here

Whom I held dear-

A starling in the prime

Of his brief time,

Whose doom it was to drain

Death’s bitter pain.

Thinking of this, my heart

Is riven apart.

And it goes on from there. There’s a different version of this story; one in which Mozart didn’t teach the starling the melody from his piano concerto but rather that the bird first sang the tune to him in the pet store. It makes you wonder, who is mimicking who?

It’s that ability to mimic that fascinates me. It’s one of things people love about birds, right? What’s the first thing you do when you see a parrot? You talk to it. Let me tell you about one parrot who talked back. Alex was an African Grey Parrot who was adopted by animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg. His entire 31 year life was an experiment. Even his name stood for “avian language experiment.” At the time he suddenly passed away, Alex could use over 100 words, recognize colors, shapes and quantities. He showed the ability to combine knowledge, understanding concepts like zero and how to spell and sound out words. That’s all very impressive, but the most extraordinary thing Alex ever did was stand in front of a mirror, see himself and ask his handler “What color?" meaning "What color am I?” That’s how he learned the word “grey” and it also marks the first documented time that a non-human animal has ever asked a question.

Some members of the scientific community say that Alex’s responses were all prompted by conditioning. Perhaps this parrot was just really good at mimicking and following Irene’s cues. However, he asked a question. He looked at himself and became curious, realizing there was something that he did not know and used his language skills to ask for the information from someone else. If that is reciting by rote then how can we prove that you or I, or that anyone for that matter isn’t just living our lives, asking questions or reacting according to our conditioning? Do we like a particular style of music because of our upbringing, social/economic state or geography? At what point does instinct, nature, nurture (whatever you want to call it) cross the threshold into independent thought and understanding? When do we decide that we aren’t just mimicking anymore?

It’s a deep question, and I know it’s a long stretch from talking about Mozart’s pet starling to reach the point where we talk about if there’s such a thing as free will. But we are really curious to hear from you. What do these topics and ideas raise in your mind? Comment below and let us know.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.