The Seven Basic Tone Qualities

Tone quality is the distinctive voice of a sound — the thing that allows you to tell the difference between a violin and a trumpet when they’re both playing the same note. It comes in very handy when identifying birds by sound, but people have tended to differ in their notions of how to describe it. Today we’ll introduce basic tone quality vocabulary. [Read more]

Changes in Speed and Pitch, and Multi-noted Series

Now that we’ve looked at the five basic pitch patterns and the four basic song patterns, let’s explore a couple of ways to extend and combine the vocabulary we’ve learned. [Read more]

The Four Basic Song Patterns

In the last post, I covered the five basic pitch patterns, introducing some vocabulary to help distinguish between different types of individual notes. Today I’m going to introduce some vocabulary to help distinguish between different types of groups of notes — that is, different types of songs. [Read more]

The Visual Power of GIFs

Ornithologists use the term variety to describe the pattern of delivery of a bird song over time. In the field, it can take many minutes of listening to determine a bird’s pattern. Animated GIFs of spectrograms can condense all this listening into just a few seconds of looping video: [Read more]

A Veery’s Two Voices

The Veery is a polyphonic singer; it sings simultaneously with both sides of its syrinx. The bird literally has two voices, one from each of its lungs, and it can control them separately. A single Veery sings a duet — and when you slow the song down, you can hear the bird actually harmonize with itself. [Read more]

The Beauty of Spectrograms

Some spectrograms match human calligraphy flourish-for-flourish in intricacy, tension, balance, and grace. [Read more]


Andrew May, an associate professor of music at the University of North Texas, has composed a piece of avant-garde classical music called “Recyclers” that centers on a recording of a Northern Mockingbird that I made in Big Bend National Park in 2007. [Read more]

Spectrograms on the iPhone

An email from Denise Wight alerted me to the Spectrogram application for the iPhone, which is a pretty neat little app indeed. It uses the iPhone’s built-in microphone to create realtime scrolling spectrograms of any sound you’re hearing. Now those with hearing loss can see the sounds that their ears can’t hear! [Read more]

On Spectrogram Settings

Today’s post is the promised follow-up to my post on the history of spectrograms. I want to explain some basic concepts of spectrographic analysis so that I can clear up some common misconceptions and explain why some things may not always look quite the way you expected. [Read more]

A Brief History of Spectrograms

To understand the variation in the way spectrograms look (and why I call them “spectrograms” instead of “Sonagrams”), it’s useful to know a little bit about their history. [Read more]