A friend of mine, a serious musician, has several parrots and is quite an advocate for preserving parrots in the wild. He's a faithful observer of their behavior at home and at large. Over the years, he's noticed a lot of repeated behaviors from the birds whenever he practices his instruments or plays recordings, and he's convinced that the birds enjoy the music.

I've had the experience many times of noticing the wild birds outside when I'm practicing. They stop singing whenever I sing or play my flute, and then they join in, making much more song than they were before. Sometimes it has a participatory quality and sometimes it seems competitive. It's always magical.

Wondering what the birds are responding to - the specific notes, the pattern, the range, the quality of sound, the rhythm - got me to thinking: How does a bunch of disparate and unrelated sounds get converted into something our brains and aesthetic taste interprets as music? Why would MY song make a bird sing ITS song? It must be something about how brains are wired.

Enter language. I'm not really trying to communicate with the birds when I make music. I'm saying something, but I'd be hard-pressed to put into words what it is I'm saying. This song is sad, that one is happy, this other one is determined, that next one is defiant. There are some general feelings that go with the songs, even the instrumental ones that don't have lyrics to explain themselves.

I had a wonderful and inventive voice teacher who asked me to try different verbs for various parts of a song that I struggled with - soaring, sinking, traveling, changing - to see if it affected how I sang. It sure did. Applying a word to a bit of melody gave that part of the song a new intention. I've tried it with my own students, and sure enough, every time, they suddenly understand something about the song that they didn't previously.

I'm going to step out on a limb with my bird friends here and say that intention is what gives meaning to song. It isn't the lyrics or the title, and it's more than the sum of the bits and pieces that make up the melody. It's also the intention of the performer.

Like music, human language is, if you think about it, a collection of sounds and rhythms to which we've agreed to assign particular meanings. Bird song is much the same, of course. The birds know “danger,” “lunch,” “bedtime,” and probably oodles of other expressions. There are birds who've learned human language and can coolly offer up “Polly wants a cracker” or “stupid dog” or other such bon mots, and some of them clearly know what these sounds mean (or some version of it) because they gauge our reactions to them. They experiment, make discoveries, and then deliver with intention, trying to get a response from humans.

It's not difficult to find a group of humans (or birds, for that matter) who agree about the meanings of various utterances, speaking the same language. There are roughly 6500 different human languages on the earth (although about 2000 of those have fewer than a thousand speakers). Only 23 languages are spoken by more than half of the world's population. The most popular languages are Chinese (Mandarin), Spanish, English, Hindi, and Arabic. Of course, there are uncountable regional differences, dialects, if you will, for flavors of the same human language and for bird language (so I'm told). And yet, we manage to understand one another.

Despite all of these perfectly good languages, developers have created new ones. Oh, I know that coding today is light years better than trying to read a bunch of zeros and ones. Sadly, the developers working on these more human-seeming languages haven't been scrupulously careful about matching the rules for the human languages they imitate. Or perhaps they weren't aware that there ARE rules. No matter. We just learn the rules of writing code in the language of choice just as we'd learn to conjugate verbs in French or German or some other new-to-us language.

For instance, when you're writing code, quotation marks are part of the expression and therefore always (nearly always?) go inside other punctuation, like parentheses and so forth. It's the opposite in American English - the quotation marks go outside the other punctuation unless the quotation isn't grammatically part of the larger sentence (such as a title). American English uses double quotation marks on the “outside” and single quotation marks on the “inside” of sentences with stacked quotations. British English is another opposite, placing the punctuation outside the quotation marks and using singles where Americans use doubles. You just learn the rules.

There are a lot of rules that you apply to human language every day without knowing it. You know where the nouns go and the verbs, and you undoubtedly know the difference between past tense and present. You're most likely pretty clever about discerning meaning too, even if only a few syllables are uttered. Intention can be a little harder to unencrypt, but we do it all day, every day, with varying success.

When computers know what I mean, THEN I'll like them.

Enter artificial intelligence. With artificial intelligence, intention is understood, not merely the specific words. We saw the start of understanding intention with tools like IntelliSense and autofill, but now we're looking at a system that knows when you say “lights on” that you're going into the kitchen and provides a list of what's in the refrigerator and pantry - and associates these items with recipes. It knows which of the five friends named “Dave” you mean when you say “call Dave” because it knows that it's Thursday and you play ultimate frisbee with only one Dave on Fridays. And it understands whether you say it with a southern drawl or an Irish brogue.

Someday the birds will be able to order 100 pounds of birdseed on their own, I just know it.

Figure 1: Poor Doggie.
Figure 1: Poor Doggie.