Why Starlings Don’t Bother With Synchronised Swimming

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 edgesSome 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

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12 thoughts on “Why Starlings Don’t Bother With Synchronised Swimming”

  1. I loved the video of the stahlings, dahling! 🙂 Thank you for this wonderful tutorial on a most vexing sound for learners of English and singers alike. PS: Thank you for introducing me to Elbow. He’s marvelous!

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    1. Or Zsa Zsa Gabor style Stahlinks Dahlink 🙂 I do love all varieties of English, the world of sound would be boring without them, but I know that the English ar trips a lot of people up when they sing. It’s so counter-intuitive to make a sound by being intentionally lazy and lots of singers from languages where a is a tidier business can’t help themselves neatening up the edges of the ar. Like your mum doing up the top button on your coat when you leave home on a cold day.

      I was watching the Russian Police Choir the other day, as you do. They sing a cover of Get Lucky. Now the Russian a is much smaller and better groomed than the English ar so the police can’t help themselves snipping the end off the English ar of star,are,far, like barbers trimming a rogue moustache. But by trimming it and changing its shape, they’ve let some of the air out of the sound. Which is a shame, because they’ve got strong voices and they’ve obviously worked hard on the arrangement of the song. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P08B_lBUL0E

      By the way, back in Stahling land, Aileen Hunt kindly sent me a lovely video of two girls in a canoe finding themselves slap bang in the middle of a starling murmuration. It’s worth catching, especially for the sound the girls make at the end https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRNqhi2ka9k

      Liked by 1 person

      1. How funny that you should link to the Russian Police Choir’s cover of “Get Lucky” — I’ve circulated it widely myself, because it’s one of my favorite cultural mash-ups (song in English, written by a couple of French lads, sung by a gang of Russians!). But thanks to you and your marvelous description (“… so the police can’t help themselves snipping the end off the English ar … like barbers trimming a rogue moustache”) now I’ll smile EVERY time I hear it. Thank you for that! 😀

        As for that starling video at the end: Goosebumps from head to toe! How extraordinarily beautiful. (And made all the moreso by that sweet little giggle of half-surprise at the end.)

        Now I can *really* say, zhank you for ze stahlings, dahling! Ha ha!!

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  2. So useful and informative guides and tutorials!
    Especially the subject is so interesting!
    I can swear I have never paid attention to these details.
    I don’t intend to sing, but your blog and your wonderful posts are so helpful for me to learn English.
    I am going to begin, although I am not sure how and from which point I should begin!
    Thank you so much,
    and,
    All the best! ❤

    Like

    1. What a lovely comment! I’m glad you find the posts interesting – if you’re looking for a place to start, tell me what kind of music you like and tell me if there’s something that you find particularly challenging about English and I’ll do my best to write a post that focuses on that. If it’s helpful to you then it will be helpful to other people too.

      By the way – do you have starlings where you live? Do people like them? Do they appear in Persian poetry or folklore at all? There’s a lovely poem about starlings here: http://www.best-poems.net/mary_oliver/poem-13085.html

      All best wishes

      Elaine

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You are beyond fantastically talented. A most deserving recognition. I watched some of the videos last night. I enjoyed all of them, especially the first in this post. I love your choices of videos and concepts and the message of acting within. You are genius!

    Thank you for your attention, kindness and respond.
    Well, I love all kinds of music, from sonnets, to alternative rock; from Mozart and Andrea Rieu to Elvis and Dulce Pontes and Enya.
    Most of all I need your advice for writing in English – I mean literally, and I don’t mean dictation or even creative writing techniques. And how should I start it in your wonderful blog.

    Meanwhile, do you know any blog or forum (native English spoken for non-native English spoken people) that can correct or edit my writings (short and long) with explanation and guide, and when I need to write something I can ask them? I don’t mean translators or editors.

    No, here we don’t have any unfortunately. Starlings are so beautiful and no one can say don’t like them. Of course! Persian literature is full of the them and birds. One of the most famous and the best is here:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Conference_of_the_Birds

    Thank you so much for introducing useful links. I am going to read the poem. I love and enjoy reading poems.

    I am so sorry to bother you and your time.

    Great thanks,
    and,
    Best wishes for you, ❤

    Like

    1. Thank you for the link – I’m going to read it properly later.

      I just wanted to say – I’m not sure that a forum would be helpful, mainly because people get very pedantic about English and that’s not helpful when you’re learning. Aside from the skeleton of grammar that supports understanding the English language, you should be able to enjoy yourself with it. Using it should be a creative expression for you, and of you. You can paint with words, just as you paint with colour. Language is a living thing.

      So I suggest doing a FutureLearn course – they’re free, they’re available anywhere in the world and they’re run by different universities. This one looks interesting – it’s for beginners and it’s for academic writing, but don’t worry if that’s not the kind of writing you want to do. When they say academic they mean logical and clear. Anyway, you have nothing to lose because you can always stop if you don’t like it https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/english-for-study There’s also this course by the British Council https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/explore-english-language-culture

      I’d have a look at the other FutureLearn courses too https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/categories and see if there’s a subject that interests you. Sometimes the best way to get better at writing English is to read or hear interesting things in English – your brain stores the ‘correct’ English and you’ll get better and better at writing coreectly yourself. I did this course https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/forensic-psychology – it was very interesting in terms of how humans see, what we notice and why we find it very difficult to describe other people.

      You don’t need to be a native English speaker to do the courses. Students join from all over the world with all kinds of levels of English and all kinds of academic levels. The courses are for everyone.

      Let me know if you find them helpful. Oh, by the way, each course has a comments section where people help each other. So that’s useful too.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Many thanks, Dear Elaine!
    So complete and useful advice and guide.
    I am going to try them one by one.
    I will write for you about them.
    Thanks again from the deepest part of my heart.
    Best wishes for you, ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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