Happy notes for happy kids

A musical adventure with Edvard Grieg 

Bill Halverson
Edvard Grieg Society of Minnesota

Music is all around us. When we go for a walk in the park, the birds sing to us. Sometimes the bees hum for us. (Sometimes they sting us, too, and then we scream or yell—but we wouldn’t call that music, would we?) When we go to a birthday party, everybody sings “Happy Birthday” to whoever is having a birthday. When we go to church, everybody sings to God. If you don’t like music, you are out of luck, because music is all around us. You can’t get away from it. (Well, I suppose you could. You could lock yourself in a sound-proof room for the rest of your life, but who wants to do that?)

There is a difference between the music of the birds and the bees and the music that we hear at birthday parties or in church. Let’s call the first kind “natural music” and the second kind “human-made music.”

Natural music

Why do birds sing? For three reasons:

The first reason is to warn other birds that this area belongs to them and those other birds better go and find a home someplace else. The song of a robin may sound beautiful to us, but to another robin it sometimes sounds like, “Get lost! This is my home and you are not welcome here!”

Most singing birds are males, and the second main reason that they sing is to try to attract a female. They want to start a family, and they are looking for someone to be a mommy bird to their chicks.

Sometimes birds appear to sing just because they enjoy singing. Just like us, right?

Birds and bees are not the only makers of natural music. The croaking of frogs and the chirping of crickets could be called other forms of natural music. Can you think of any others?

One interesting fact about birdsong is that each type of bird—robin, canary, meadowlark, etc.—has its own distinctive sound. There are some very slight differences, but to our ears a robin in Ohio sounds just like a robin in Minnesota or in California or in Germany. Baby robins learn to sing like robins from their parents, and when they become parents they will teach their chicks to sing the same song. Robins always sing like robins, canaries always sing like canaries, meadowlarks always sing like meadowlarks—and ducks always quack like ducks.

Human-made music

Human-made music is different from natural music in many ways. There is no one song that is natural to a human being. We are all born with the equipment for singing—lungs, vocal cords, lips, tongues, etc.­—but the only “natural” uses of this equipment are crying or screaming. If we human beings are going to make music, we have to create it ourselves. Most of us probably are not capable of creating music that anybody else would want to listen to, but some people are. We call them composers. To compose means almost the same as to write. We say that we write letters, or we write emails. We could just as well say that we compose letters, or we compose emails. The same is true of music. Composers are people who write music. Anywhere in the world where there are people, there is human-made music, and wherever there is human-made music there are composers who have written that music. Every country in the world has composers who have written music that is especially popular in that country.

Some composers write music that becomes popular all over the world. They become so famous that people everywhere remember their names long after those composers are dead. Among the most famous composers of all time are Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johannes Brahms, Peter Tchaikovsky, and Johan Sebastian Bach.

One other famous composer was Edvard Grieg, and we are going to study him as an example of what composers do. In our next lesson we will start getting acquainted with him.

Stuff to do

  • If you were going to be a bird, what kind of bird would you like to be? Why?
  • Are there any birds that you can identify by their looks? By their sound?
  • Go online to nature-mentor.com and listen to some birdsongs. What kinds of birds live in your neighborhood?
  • Get the app Picture Bird on a smart phone. Record some birdsongs in your neighborhood to find out what kind of birds they are.

Images: iStock

This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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William H. Halverson

Dr. Bill Halverson, scholarly advisor of the Edvard Grieg Society of America, Inc., is regarded as one of America’s leading authorities on the life and work of Edvard Grieg. His translations of Grieg’s writings (letters, diaries, articles, speeches) and of books about Grieg and his music are major sources of information about Norway’s greatest composer in the English-speaking world.