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.
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.
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.
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.
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"
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."
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,
in "American Scientist" --March-April
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Some additional reading:
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Piano Concerto 17