Enter the maze

Hugo is no song bird

by Jane Waite, Queen Mary University of London

A ventriloquist's dummy : copyright www.istockphoto.com 9255439

What was the first technology for recording music: CDs? Records? 78s, The phonograph? No. Trained songbirds came before all of them.

Composer, musician, engineer and visiting fellow at Goldsmiths University, Sarah Angliss, usually has a robot on stage performing live with her. These robots are not slick high tech cyber-beings, but junk modelled automata. One, named Hugo, sports a spooky ventriloquist dolls head! Sarah builds and programs her robots, herself.

She is also a sound historian, and worked on a Radio 4 documentary, 'The Bird Fancyer's Delight', uncovering how birds have been used to provide music across the ages. During the 1700's people trained songbirds to sing human invented tunes in their homes. You could buy special manuals showing how to train your pet bird. By playing young birds a tune over and over again, and in the absence of other birds to put them right, they would adopt that song as their own. Playing the recorder was one way to train them, but special instruments were also invented to do the job automatically.

With the invention of the phonograph, home songbird popularity plummeted but it didn't completely die out. Blackbirds, thrushes, canaries, budgies, bullfinches and other songbirds have continued to be schooled to learn songs that they would never sing in the wild.