Classical Music for the Birds From cuckoos to roosters, nightingales to goldfinches, composers have long been fascinated with the sounds of birds. Hear how their chirps, twitters, and songs are imitated by the instruments of the orchestra.

Classical Music for the Birds


From the 17th century's adventuresome Heinrich Biber (whose violin sonata mimics nightingales, hens, and quails) right up through today, composers have been fascinated with our fine-feathered friends, and have used their songs as a source of inspiration. The instruments imitating bird songs in these pieces range from the flute — which you'd expect — to some more unusual suspects. Here's a small sampling from the vast classcial music aviary.

Classical Music for the Birds

Cover for Prokofiev: Peter And the Wolf

Peter and the Wolf, Op. 67

  • Song: Peter and the Wolf
  • from Prokofiev: Peter And the Wolf/March In B Flat Major/Overture On Hebrew Themes/Classical Symphony
  • by Claudio Abbado

Probably the best-known bird in classical music is Peter’s friend and sidekick, who helps our hero capture the wolf in 'Peter and the Wolf.' Sergei Prokofiev wrote the story and the music for this wonderful tale, which serves as a great introduction to the instruments of the orchestra.

Cover for Vivaldi: Flute Concertos

Flute Concerto in D, RV 428 "The Goldfinch"

  • Song: Concertos (6) for flute, Op.10
  • from Vivaldi: Flute Concerto in D, Op. 10/3, RV428; Flute Concerto in Gm, Op. 10/2, RV439
  • by Patrick Gallois

Many of Antonio Vivaldi’s concertos can be played on a variety of solo instruments, but the concerto nicknamed “The Goldfinch” was specifically written for flute. Through a variety of swoops and trills, Vivaldi coaxes the flute into some great bird imitations.

Cover for Handel: Complete Organ Concertos

Organ Concerto "Cuckoo & the Nightingale"

  • Song: Organ Concerto in F major "Cuckoo & the Nightingale"
  • from Handel: Complete Organ Concertos
  • by Simon Preston

This piece gives you two birds for the price of one concerto. The organ is a highly versatile instrument, with pipes that can sound like all kinds of things -- including a cuckoo having a conversation with a nightingale.

Cover for Classical Zoo

The Birds, "The Hen"

  • Song: Gli uccelli (The Birds), suite for orchestra, P. 154
  • from Classical Zoo
  • by Various

Twentieth-century composer and master of orchestration Ottorino Respighi took a set of avian pieces by 17th- and 18th-century composers and updated them in a suite called "The Birds." In addition to a nightingale and a cuckoo, Respighi’s feathered friends include a dove and a hen. This CD gives you practically an entire aviary, with the overture to Gioacchino Rossini’s opera "The Thieving Magpie," "The Swan of Tuonela" by Jean Sibelius, and "The Carnival of the Animals," by Camille Saint-Saens.

Cover for Biber: Violin Sonatas

Sonata, "Cock, Hen & Quail"

  • Song: Sonata representativa
  • from Biber: Violin Sonatas
  • by Romanesca

My favorite semi-obscure Baroque composer is Heinrich Ignatz Franz von Biber. He worked for a count who loved musical sound effects, and the "Sonata Representativa" is full of them. In addition to the obligatory cuckoo and nightingale, Biber has the violin cluck like a hen, crow like a rooster, and burble like a quail. For good measure, he also throws in a frog and a cat.

Naomi Lewin is the midday music host at WGUC in Cincinnati, where she writes and hosts the award-winning program Classics for Kids. Lewin also produces the Cameo intermission features for the Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.