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Timeline: Canticle Of The Animals

This 13th Century fresco depicts St. Francis of Assisi's fabled "Sermon to the Birds."
U.S. Public Domain
This 13th Century fresco depicts St. Francis of Assisi's fabled "Sermon to the Birds."

“My sweet little sisters, birds of the sky, you are bound to heaven, to God, your Creator. In every beat of your wings and in every note of your songs, praise God.” Those are the opening words of St. Francis of Assisi’s Sermon to the Birds. Francis is the patron saint of animals. His writings and the accounts of his life point to a kinship between humanity and all living creatures, an important aspect of Franciscan spirituality.


We’ve been exploring all the ways that music has changed the world and us. In this episode we’ll discover that music might belong to more than just humanity. So many creatures on our shared planet also have a voice. 

Like St. Francis, we’re all familiar with the variety of songs and melodies that flow from the birds of the sky and you’ve probably heard recordings of whale song, especially humpback whales. There’s an episode of Timeline that dives into the complex calls of these water composers.

Maybe this piece of audio is something you haven’t heard before.

This is the sound of a group of guerillas, gathered together, snacking on a banana tree. I don’t know about you, but those hums sound like content, happy singing to me.


This chirping isn’t a bird it’s a bat calling to a mate.


That chortling call is coming from the mouth of a Harris Antelope squirrel.


No, this isn’t the sound of a vibrating cell phone, it’s the call of a toadfish used for warning and for mating.

Even plants have a voice. Scientists have known for a long time that plants vibrate in response to outside stimulus, but in a 2019 study it was revealed that some plants actually emit a high-frequency squeal in response to stress, like drought, or even getting cut or harvested. Plants can scream.

I was excited to learn that there’s a growing field of research around non-human music-making called zoomusicology. The term was coined in 1983 by the French composer François-Bernard Mâche. Mâche wrote these words in the book Music, Myth and Nature, ”If it turns out that music is a widespread phenomenon in several living species apart from man, this will very much call into question the definition of music, and more widely that of man and his culture.”

Mâche’s words make me consider the exceptionalism that we, as humans, have had concerning our own musicality. We often forget that we are mammals, animals as well. We are part of this living, breathing planet. It seems that where there is life there is voice and where there is voice there is music. Entomologist Edward O. Wilson said it best in this quote from the 1984 book Biophilia, “Every species is a magic well.”

Find out when music changed us and the world and follow the Timeline.

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