Bird sound encoding

I remember reading a thought from @LynneKelly about associating the bird catalog she carries around in her head with the calls and songs they have wondering how to do that. I thought I’d see if anyone had any method they use and offer a system that I am starting to use for that purpose.

I see a robin outside my window often and know they have several different sounds. They have a song, a call, and a warning sound. I grew up reading piano music so seeing the music as a visual code is not difficult.

Encoding the robin song into notes, I see a short series of notes within a small tonal range that looks like the flattened shape of a box or triangle with the corners representing the notes. It could be a horizontal lightning bolt shape also because the song spans between two to four notes ending in a staccato note.

I’d use a staccato notation of a bouncing dot on that part of the image. The corners are where I embed a diacritical mark known as a tilde or hang a musical notation symbol over them for more detail for mordents, trills, and turns because of the quick variation in pitch.

I like my birds to be remembered as people if possible. The music may only suggest an object that I can use to associate it with a person. The visual association to the robin with a person turns the notation crumpled box shape into a piece of a fabric that is placed as a hood over the robin’s head making the image of the character Robin Hood out of the bird. My blue jay is more of a Jay-Z kind of musician. He blasts one note at a time.

Let me know if you start using a similar system. Having a music background helps to create the visual images so you may need to review.


I am delighted to see this post, Douglas. I am really interested in what you are doing and to compare notes. I am working on a method for the bird calls - it is the hardest part of the bird field guide experiment.

I have no natural audio memory - like my aphantasia causing a lack of visual images.

The descriptions in field guides are a starting point, but I am sure that we can do much better. I am also using a visual guide, but I have been working on my calligraphy, flourishing, drawing birds and painting them in watercolour to put it all together. Nothing like going overboard on a project! Consequently, I haven’t got far on the actual calls other than listening in the field and reading the guides and thinking about how to limit to the major calls for each species.

I have way less of a background in music than you, but I can read it - just not very well. I have been experimenting with a bit of software called AnthemScore to try and convert the bird calls to music score.

I want to add a musical indication to the calligraphy trying to represent the pitch, volume and general structure of the call.

I haven’t thought about representing the birds as people, although I do have a story for each of the bird families and that certainly gives them human like personalities. I wasn’t thinking of including that in the mnemonic images, but I would love to consider it more. It sounds like a great idea.

Do you have any images of what you are doing? I only partly understood what you wrote because I am not used to the language of musical representation. I have only rough scribbles of the calls I am working on, but you have got me enthused to draw the calls properly now. I am doing the owls and cuckoos because they are two families where the calls are highly diagnostic in the field.

I checked with the calligraphy online group and they know of no-one trying to use calligraphy to represent calls. None of the birders I know have seen anything like it either. I think we are working on something original as well as really valuable.

I think we are trying similar things. I am really interested in what you are doing!



@LynneKelly, you’ve opened up a world of memorizing sound to me to compound the possibilities of envisioning nature in images which I’ve just started. I think your work is incredibly interesting and ordered your recent book, Songlines. I am starting to have too many irons in the fire already.

I thought that since bird calls were the vocal equivalent of singing, the best place to start looking for a compatible notation system was at the beginning before we got so precise. There’s too much variation in my robin as I listen to him and I try to generalize his song.

The medieval monks sang plainsong and recorded their music in a notation called neume. They didn’t have a complete standard but pitch was essential and duration was simple. With words for humans or vowel and consonant equivalents for birds written below the notation, I think this would be the best choice for starting out. The robin is a tui-tui-tui-ti and the jay is a chaaa.

As music notation got more refined and bound to instruments instead of voices, the notations became more exact and harder to write and read. But the ornaments for trill, turns, and mordents I still think are useful. All these are very calligraphic.

I followed a stream of thought from how Olivier Messiaen incorporated complex European notation of birdsongs in his music to a less complex but still hard to notate A Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music back to searching about for information on Gregorian monk song notations and the simpler mensural notation, which ultimately led me to how to read and write the chants themselves using neumes (nyoomz).

Edward Tufte, the expert in data visualization in the computer field, has a few references on his forum site as well but none that really sparked my interest. Maybe one of the links might pay off though.

I could spend days sifting through all the search results from how to notate bird songs but I don’t have the birds like you in your back yard which would give me much practice.

But I do think calligraphy paired with a basic sense of pitch and duration with syllables underneath would be enjoyable to read and to apply for identification. Do you have a musician who can transcribe recorded songs in a neume style? I can give you feedback whether it seems clear or not and how possibly to extend the notation.

I might try to draw out what I’m thinking but this will give you some ideas for now. If you have recorded calls online of birds you hear, I could give those a go first. The notation is the roughest part. Then the shape becomes an image to store for a story, right?



I dont know if this is a stupid question, but this is the first time ive seen calligraphy mentioned as memory tool, how do you use that for memorizing? Is it an alternative way to turn words into images?

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Here’s a modern and calligraphic type of neume notation:

And here was my original idea using some modern ornaments:


@Zillia, I believe that calligraphy is the writing method for the music notation for the Gregorian chants. I was turning the music notation into a shape in my head and then finding an object for an image value to store with all the other details. Here’s the shape conversion from the robin’s song above:
And then I selected a hood or scarf as a conversion from shape to object.

Now I have Robin + Hood for the person image value to store away.


Fascinating, thanks for explaining with images! I’ve never thought of encoding music like that.
I might delve into this deeper if it means I finally have a way to remember those snippets of music i hear in my dreams and only remember while in bed :joy:

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Now I have to read the topics about constellation creation because turning notes into shapes that resemble people, objects, or monuments seems to be the same as seeing star groups as images.


@doughoff Thanks for kicking this off. I’m relieved to see someone else occupied (personally I’m worried) with this topic.

I’ve recently begun some work on memorizing birds in North America. Bird song is one of the more intimidating areas for me as I have absolutely zero knowledge of music beyond a pair of functioning ears.

In my early searches for a comprehensive text to work from, I did note that the book Birds of North America (Golden Field Guides series) by Chandler S. Robbins, & Bertel Bruun, and Herbert S. Zim (St. Martin’s Press, 2001) was one of the few guides that dealt with birdsong and had a short section on the subject in the front and listed visual sonograms for most birds. Sadly, the book didn’t include audio which I think may have been incredibly helpful in matching the sound with the visuals.

I have bookmarked a few websites that deal with it, though there are sure to be many others that match birdsong audio to a visual representation of some sort. Here are a few of those:

Initially I imagined that through direct experience in listening and viewing these sonograms, I might come to some sort of facility with them. Next I would potentially rely on the concept of pareidolia to come up with some images to attach to them.

In any case, I thought I’d sketch out my general plan and some of the resources and words I’d come across to see if they may be of help to others. I’m looking forward to seeing what others may have come up with or used as well. Birdsong will assuredly be the last piece of the puzzle that I build into my bird repertoire.

Incidentally, after having done some significant library searching and bird guide/handbook review, I’ve chosen Birds of North America, Francois Vuilleumier (Dorling Kindersley, 2020, ISBN:978-0-7440-2053-3) as my “bible” for it’s structuring of bird families, photographs, descriptions, and variety of data about birds and their ranges. It’s about as comprehensive (for my area of the world) as anything out there, is well laid out, and sort of makes its own method of loci based on page layouts and color schemes. It is too large to take out into the field easily, but I find that working on storing the data is easier in the comfort of the house than the wilderness.

I’ll also note that it has representative visual flight diagrams which may be relatively easy to categorize and therefore memorize bird flight patterns. If others have better or more detailed resources for this, I’d love to know those as well.


Perhaps you could memorize all the constellations and potentially see if they could serve as double duty?

I’ve found The Stars: A New Way to See Them by H.A Rey (yes, the creator of Curious George) to be a comprehensive list with a tremendous number of pictures, charts, useful stories, mythology, etc. for memorizing all the major constellations and many of the common star names and related data. It’s ostensibly aimed at a novice audience, but one might also think he was targeting the mnemonists among us as well.

Should it help in your researching image formation, the phenomenon you mentioned is called pareidolia.


This is all so interesting. I wish I could follow it up more and get on with my art work, but I am inundated with emails and contacts about using songlines / memory palaces in education.

My concept of the calligraphy is very different from what you refer to, Chris. You are looking at the calligraphy of the musical notation. I hadn’t thought about that. I just imagined normal music notation, but you raise some really interesting ideas.

My calligraphy relates more to what you wrote when you said ‘The robin is a tui-tui-tui-ti and the jay is a chaaa’. Each of your tui bits might be a different pitch, length and volume. If they were rising and getting longer and louder, for example, I would write each tui bigger, more stretched and higher in the calligraphy. I was seeing the musical notation as an added extra - I don’t think it is as memorable as I could make the writing.

One of the linked articles talked about sonograms. I am working with one of our leading birdsong recordists who does wonderful sonograms. But I don’t find the images of frequencies and pitch to be very memorable either. I could well be wrong on this. It is all a new experiment.

My concept has a painting of the bird, very accurate for diagnostics but with personality - hence a year of art classes and endless instructions to my birder photographer husband for the images I need. The bird will sit on flourishing, a bit like this:

Except my bird will be very accurate, in colour. Within that flourishing will be the common and scientific name. I’ve been doing flourishing classes too. Then somehow I will match the style with the words of the call, getting bigger and smaller, higher and lower, longer, shorted, with gaps … to match the way it sounds. The musical representation will be part of the artwork as well, somehow linking to the calligraphic call. I want the whole image to be wildly memorable! How’s that for ambitious?

For the calls, I am using the bird guide apps which have the calls in them. I am working with my fellow birders to decide what is the major call they use in the field to identify a bird. The call of the fantailed cuckoo, for example, is a long descending call which can be imagined much like a fan opening, which I will incorporate with the wording. It is a certain diagnostic in the field - the bird is heard far more than seen, and hard to distinguish from other cuckoos in a quick glimpse unless it calls. I doubt that I will be able to execute what I imagine, but I will have a lovely time trying.

I have no idea if what I am saying makes sense. It does in my head!



Hi Zillia,

Far from a stupid question. It is just one of my experiments. I hadn’t thought of making the music notation more memorable - Chris’s ideas are really interesting!

I want to turn the words into images, exactly as you suggest. Neat, typed words are not memorable. But words taking on the physical shape of the sound they are trying to represent, might be very memorable. But then again they might not. I won’t know until I try.

If only there were a lot more hours in every day!



Some catching up here to do. We’re all busy but you @LynneKelly need to be cloned a thousand times.

I’ve used transcription software and I think it would have value to a musician in helping to take the exact aural snapshot so that you could reduce it to an image much like an artist uses a photograph to produce a graphic version. I’ve never worked with sonograms but they could be used similarly.

I love using calligraphy for personal image strengthening. I can see a four-line flourish clef containing the song of the bird as part of your artwork. Pitch is position on the clef, tonal range of the clef by a symbol at the beginning of the clef, and volume in music is represented by a word from pp to ff (pianissimo to fortissimo) with sudden emphasis by an accent either short (^) or long (>) but I could see note size indicating volume.

Who knows what kinds of playful antics your rapscallions with choose to do climbing the bars of the clef and jumping around the notes to add in emotions! I can see one of your fellows sleeping on the top bar as he is soothed by a mourning dove’s lament of a legato curve connected or neume double note for the first sliding notes upwards by a sixth. (A note on the first line would slide up to above the third line in the space for an exact pitch.) Then there are three spaced notes afterward at the same pitch as the first. O-wee. Ooo. Ooo. Ooo. A lower clef would be used.

I listened to your fan-tailed cuckoo to get an idea of what notation you might need. It’s a quick note, followed by a slightly higher note that remembles a percussive drum roll as it descends in pitch several bars below. The final note connected to the second to show a sliding pitch is like the neume connected notes. Warbled songs don’t give me the same type of syllables and the best I could come up with is wree-aaaaaaaa. The first image I think of is a shape of a cane with many bumps on the long part as the little rapscallion slides down.


Rey’s star book (already ordered!) is a wonderful way to rekindle my adolescent interest in the stars while learning more about memory methods like pareidolia to finally complete my identification of the skies. I never stored more than three or four constellations permanently.

@chrisaldrich, I’ll be interested to see how you help bring together your knowledge to create a more mnemonic way to visualize and remember bird calls and traits. I’ve also added your blog to my news reader with all the good ideas there as well. Thanks for all your great feedback!

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What fascinating ideas. I wish I had more time to focus on them. I want to do everything!

Douglas: my husband says that before anyone clones me, could they please speak to him? He doesn’t think he could cope.

Your way of conceiving the calligraphy, Douglas, is so very different to mine. I am really intrigued. I don’t think I fully understand. I agree that the result from the music transcription would need a musician to interpret it for what I want. Fortunately, I have a musician-daughter who has agreed to do so. Plus a friend who is an opera singer who is also interested in the idea. Then there is a group of birders all wanting to help, one of whom is a musician and does sonographs of bird calls. I just don’t have anything ready for them to work with other than vague descriptions of what is in my head!

This is all so interesting! Thank you all for the ideas!



Very interesting topic.

To avoid writing too much, I preferred to recommend some bibliography (although you, @doughoff and @LynneKelly, probably know it partially or totally, it could be useful to others). It is directly or indirectly related to the possibility of encoding and memorizing sounds, including gestures and movements. At least they may serve as inspiration to develop your own ideas about the encoding of bird sounds:

  • “Medieval music and the art of memory” - Anna Maria Busse Berger.
    Probably THE book that links music with mnemonics. Busse Berger explores “how singers managed to memorize such an enormous amount of music and how music composed in the mind rather than in writing”.

  • “What Is Conducting? Signs, Principles, and Problems” - Morten Schuldt-Jensen
    What Is Conducting? Signs, Principles, and Problems
    About the musical conducting gestures, their signs as a system and their syntactic structure.

  • “The Sign Language of Music: Musical Shaping Gestures (MSGs) in Rehearsal Talk by Performers with Hearing Impairments” - Robert Fulford, Jane Ginsborg
    The Sign Language of Music: Musical Shaping Gestures (MSGs) in Rehearsal Talk by Performers with Hearing Impairments | Fulford | Empirical Musicology Review
    The use of gesture in musical contexts made by musicians with different levels of hearing impairment, a classification of ‘musical shaping gestures’ (MSGs) according to existing taxonomies and how a standardised ‘sign language of music’ could be formed.

  • “The phonological organization of sign languages” - Wendy Sandler
    This article provides an overview of the way in which phonology is organized in the alternative modality of sign language.

  • Bouba/kiki effect (or takete/baluba effect)
    The discovery of non-arbitrary mapping between speech sounds and the visual shape of objects.


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Thanks so much for the listing of references, @mad10000, I really didn’t know any of them. All my music background was centered around solo piano performance with little study of musical history and contact with other types of musicians. And as an analyst, I love to see encoding systems like words to gestures, music to gestures (never even imagined it :open_mouth:) and speech to shapes.

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Thank you, @mad10000. I also didn’t know of these. I shall follow up. Much appreciated.

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(This is one of the best threads I’ve seen on the forum for some time. Flagging to follow up with all of the references in more detail.)

I have been practicing birding by ear for the last couple seasons. I also have a hard time recalling the pitches for a selected bird, but can more reliably hear the sound and remember the bird name.

I didn’t see anyone mention yet that birders already have a birdsong mnemonic that encodes the birdsong syllables with words. It can be frustrating reading a birding guide and see these phrases, because they don’t do anything to help you understand a birdsong if you have not already heard it. However, if you hear the song and encode the words, the words help hook back to the song.

ie. American Robin “cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up .”

If you don’t know the sound of a robin, this won’t help you, but if you hear the bright voice of a robin and think, ah, cheerily, cheer up, you can later use those words to recall the song.

We often talk about how mnemonics are amplified by absurdity, comedy, sensuality, etc. and this shows up in the variety of birdsong-speech that shows up in birding guides. I can’t find one readily, but I’m sure you can find an example within a few entries of your field guide of choice.

The other method that is less artificial is to try to imitate bird songs. It is usually a whole-body exercise, and requires dropping all inhibitions to really do it well, which are both aspects of mnemonics. I’m not sure this is the best method for any kind of speed-learning endeavor, but it is another way to build familiarity. For some masterful bird imitations, and a fully wonderful conversation about birds and living, listen to: Episode 22: Prairie Warbler | This Is Love

I learned the song of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet last summer. The next time I heard it was last weekend, and I remembered what it was right away. Amazingly, even now I can’t fully recall the song in my head!


Thank you for such a wonderful response. I am very excited that you see the value of using words like this. I want to add a visual element to the words.

I think I was vague in my response above, the one with the bird image and the calligraphic flourishing. When I was talking words in that response, I am talking words exactly as you suggest. [I wrote: *Then somehow I will match the style with the words of the call, getting bigger and smaller, higher and lower, longer, shorted, with gaps … to match the way it sounds.*] I am starting from those in the bird guides - I am using the four main guides for Victorian birds. There are also two apps which have calls in them, and what i hear in the field. When there are expressions like you describe for the robin, that is what I will use. Or anything other birders tell me, or my own versions.

I want to add the visual elements - bigger lettering for when it is louder, taking the words higher for pitch, shortening or lengthening the words - anything I can do yo make the words more visual. Your cheerily, cheer up is a perfect example.

But I want to paint the birds with key ID markings and use calligraphy to make it a beautiful image. I think that is going a bit far, but that has never stopped me before.

Any ideas you have on this, guitarninja (or anyone else) would be greatly appreciated.


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