As David Attenborough puts it: a sight to cheer us all in the darkest time of year:
You can hear a million starlings distilled into 2 perfect Attenborough minutes on BBC’s Tweet of the Day : http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03k72zr
What have starlings got to do with human singing? Well, the relaxed ar sound in the middle of starling can be a challenge to non-native speakers of English – though not if they’ve read this post and watched David Bowie’s mouth relax on the ar as he sings Starman.
But surely you’ll never, ever need to sing the word starling in English. Who on earth would weave a whole song around one small speckled bird? A desolate twitcher? You’d be surprised. I was.
Starlings find their way into more songs than you might have imagined. How about: In the white room with black curtains near the station, Blackroof country, no gold pavements, tired starlings? It’s Eric Clapton and the other members of Cream being psychedelic in their 1968 hit White Room here.
What’s the attraction of the word and the bird? Starling is satisfyingly expansive to sing (like Starman) – you open your mouth for the first syllable and you can stretch that syllable for as long as you like. Star is a forgiving sound and it’s a word with attractive connotations in and of itself. I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like stars.
Ling sounds light and merry. Ling as a suffix makes a word sound young, small and sweet – duckling, spiderling, princeling etc. Ling is easy to sing – you can give it the ting-a-ling sound of a small bell. You can ghost the g or not, depending on the effect you want to produce. There’s nothing hard about the word starling, but it has a pleasing architecture. Try saying it out loud. It feels light and easy in the mouth, doesn’t it? Now try seagull, with its sticky middle g or peacock, with its hard edges. Some birds are easy, welcome guests in songs, some are not.
And our bird? What kind of feeling does a starling evoke in a song? It has a dark colour, but it’s not as ominous as Edgar Poe’s raven. It’s not as solitary as Paul McCartney’s blackbird. Most people think of it as a gawky little bird when they see one close up. It has no special significance, no famous folkloric connection – nothing like a stork or a robin. A songwriter can use starling in any corner of a song without distracting the audience. Starling stands for smallish, unremarkable, living creature. An Everyman of birds.That’s it. In the Cream song, the tired starlings represent tiredness itself. They represent the nondescript and a tiny taste of the natural world. The song ends: Yellow tigers crouched in jungles in her dark eyes, She’s just dressing, goodbye windows, tired starlings. The yellow tigers breathe exotic. The tired starlings are just tired.
A starling on its own isn’t very eye-catching – except to its mother, perhaps. In a small group, starlings can’t represent the fizz-bang of love. But when Guy Garvey of Elbow chooses to end a song spinning and diving like a cloud of starlings, we think of murmurations and we feel the swooping exhilaration of passion:
And, of course, darling is a popular word in songs. Now, if you’re just saying the word starling or darling, to a human or bird of your choice, you can roll the r as much as you like. You’ll sound unusual, but they’re unusual words and people will guess what you mean. Birds or beloveds. One of the two.
But if you’re singing (Mandy Moore’s Extraordinary for example: I was a starling, Nobody’s darling or Tori Amos’ Starling: Starling you were right, I am the jealous kind) then you need to give that central ar/ah the relaxed sound and space that the music requires. Otherwise the word starling/darling won’t land on all the notes that the songwriter prepared for it. It will skitter off-balance. The word needs its smooth relaxed central ah sound for stability.
Starlings have been inspiring human music for a long, long time. Nearly 2000 years ago, while he was still sensitive and sane, the Emperor Nero played the cithara while his pet starlings repeated the notes to him, like doting fans. According to Pliny, they recited Latin and Greek to him too.
Mozart’s starling kept him company by sitting on his shoulder while he composed. Its powers of musical mimicry and memory made it invaluable to him, as an 18th century-style voice recorder. When it died, he organised a proper funeral service and composed a poem to be read at the graveside.
Why is a group of starlings called a murmuration? Supposedly because of the soft, rustling murmur of noise they make when they get together. In which case, it would be a privilege to stand close to a group of crows when they meet up. A gathering of crows is called a storytelling.
Having just written this post on the Unthanks song Magpie, I see that a group of magpies is called a conventicle.
Out of interest: I’ve said what a starling represents to me, but what does a starling represent to you? Good luck or bad luck? Neutral or exciting? I’d love to know – and I have a feeling that starlings might represent different things in different cultures – just as dragons are considered lucky in China, but not in the West. Would you marry somebody who wrote you a love song filled with starlings?
© Sing Better English, 2015