A Translation of Luigi Paolucci's «On Birdsong»

Phenomenology, Animal Psychology and Biology

by Paolo Palmieri (Author)
©2018 Monographs XVIII, 212 Pages


A Translation of Luigi Paolucci’s On Birdsong is the first English translation of a groundbreaking memoir on birdsong by the Italian naturalist Luigi Paolucci. It is accompanied by extensive annotations and an introductory essay by the translator, Paolo Palmieri, that examines the scientific and philosophical questions raised by birdsong in relation to the history and philosophy of science, phenomenology, and the theoretical problems of the demarcation of the human and non-human animal. Paolucci’s memoir focuses on firsthand ecological research and offers a fundamental theory of birdsong as language and music. Paolucci studies songbird species and behavior by bringing to bear linguistics, music and sound theory, and the debate on evolutionary theory and animal cognition. In the introductory essay, Paolo Palmieri adopts a phenomenological approach in order to investigate the problem of animal suffering and ethics, animal reasoning and will, the neurophysiology of hearing in humans and birds, and the relation between birdsong and laughter. This book will appeal to a large audience of philosophers, post-humanists, historians of science, animal cognition theorists, birdsong scientists and naturalists, and students. This book will also be valuable to the general public who is interested in the ethical debates on the presence of non-human animals in our society.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Figures
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Note on Translation
  • Introduction: The Human/Animal
  • On Birdsong: An Essay on Animal Physiology and Biology in Relation to Sexual Selection and the Struggle for Existence by Luigi Paolucci
  • Part One: Comparative Phenomenology of Birdsong
  • Chapter One: On Natural Language
  • Chapter Two: The Mechanism of Sound in Autophonous Animals
  • Chapter Three: The Mechanism of Sound in Heterophonous Animals
  • Chapter Four: The Fundamental Sounds of Birdsong
  • Chapter Five: Musical Representation of Birdsong
  • Part Two: Patterns of Psychic Expression in Birdsong
  • Chapter One: Intelligence and Communication in Birdsong
  • Chapter Two: Diversity in Birdsong according to Age and Sex
  • Chapter Three: Biological Purposes of Birdsong
  • Chapter Four: Adult Birdsong in Both Sexes
  • Chapter Five: Imitation Voices
  • Chapter Six: Conclusion: Phonetic Corruption and Regeneration in Birdsong
  • Index

← viii | ix →


Figure I.1Portrait of a woman with a pearl by Giovanni Agostino da Lodi.
Figure I.2Man and his lion archetype.
Figure I.3Spectrogram of the initial segment of the song.
Figure I.4The spectrogram of a fragment of a nightingale song.
Figure 1.1The frontispiece of Paolucci’s monograph on birdsong.
Figure 1.2A native man from Mallicolo.
Figure 2.1Examples of cricket song notation.
Figure 2.2Song of Bufo Viridis and shrill noise of Hyla Viridis
Figure 3.1Bird vocal apparatus Figure 1, Engraving III.
Figure 5.1Paolucci’s music notation of the finch’s song.
Figure 5.2Examples 1–11 of birdsong as reported by Paolucci.
Figure 5.3Examples 12–20 of birdsong as reported by Paolucci.
Figure 5.4The raven picturing the stage of nigredo (blackness) within the alchemical vessel. ← ix | x →

← x | xi →


The naturalist Luigi Paolucci (1849–1935) was born in Ancona, the capital city of the Marche, a splendid region in central Italy facing the Adriatic. Not much is known of his life. He studied veterinary medicine in Ancona and then at the University of Bologna, where he graduated in 1870.1 Paolucci spent most of his life in his city and the Marche, where he became a veterinary surgeon and a professor at local higher-education institutions. He was also marginally involved in political activities. He collected and prepared numerous animal taxidermies for a natural history museum, most of which are still preserved in Offagna, a lovely medieval town near Ancona.2 Aside from his passion for natural history and birds, Paolucci had a great interest in languages, especially Greek, Spanish and Sanskrit. He dabbled in literature. He wrote poetry in the style of the Italian Romantics, perhaps for purely personal pleasure, as can be gathered from his own private diary. He especially admired Ugo Foscolo.

Paolucci’s scientific and philosophical masterpiece is a monograph on birdsong, Il canto degli uccelli, published in 1878, which I have translated in this volume into English for the first time.3 He also wrote on the Marche local flora and fauna and on sundry topics in natural history and other subjects. Perhaps it is no accident that Paolucci remains an elusive figure. He is virtually unknown in the records of the history of science. The paucity of biographical details and the scattered documents surviving in Ancona bear witness to this shadowy character. ← xi | xii → The original manuscript of the essay here translated was recently discovered.4 But there is a dimension of seclusion and intimacy in his life. Quotations of his work on birdsong are scant. His contemporary, Xenos Clark, an American naturalist, cited Paolucci’s essay, in 1879, one year after the publication of “Il canto degli uccelli”.5 He wrote:

This is an elaborate and philosophical memoir treating of animal song in many separate aspects. The notes of insects, batrachians, reptiles and birds are given in musical notation, and elaborately discussed. No less than twenty bird songs are thus written on the gamut, and the peculiar melodic quality of sixty-eight more tabulated. We hope to review this important work in a succeeding number of the Naturalist.6

The brief paragraph contains acute remarks. Clark intuited the scientific and philosophical ambition of Paolucci’s essay. Unfortunately, the American naturalist did not follow up on his comments, and so far as I have been able to ascertain the promised review was never written or published. Aside from Clark, I could not find a single citation of Paolucci’s essay in the modern scientific literature on birdsong and/or animal music. Paolucci was forgotten. Yet his essay was ground-breaking and in many respects has remained unrivalled after more than a century. Most modern research on birdsong has been done in typical academic settings, which condition the mindset of the scientists and limit their approach within narrow materialistic-mechanistic prejudices. In sharp contrast, Paolucci’s work matured in a life-world in which his experience of dwelling in the ecologies of birdsong, immersed in the pristine landscapes of the Marche and the Adriatic, was a form of humble involvement with nature, in reverence of the mystery of animal life. It was this tension of renunciation, fascination with the animal ‘other’ and mystical exaltation, which transpires so genuinely from the pages of his essay, that inspired me when I encountered his magical work on birdsong.

In my introductory essay, The human/animal, I propose a meditation on the question that captured my imagination when I first read “Il canto degli uccelli”. It is the question of the demarcation of the realm of the human from that of the non-human animal. I was struck by the fact that Paolucci extensively and systematically employs musical notation to transcribe patterns of birdsong. This was not totally new since others before him had occasionally adopted this practice. But I found it intriguing that the musical notation of birdsong had opened up for Paolucci (and for myself) a new vista on the presence of music in the non-human animal kingdom. Thus, my introductory essay weaves many philosophical themes that are historically informed, and which gravitate towards the question of the demarcation of the human from the non-human ← xii | xiii → animal. Examples include non-human animal reason, the ethical issues concerning non-human animals, the uncanny parallelisms between human and non-human languages and laughter, the acoustic interpretation of birdsong patterns, psychoacoustics, and the neurophysiology of hearing in humans and birds. There is no strong unifying motive, however. I am a nomadic thinker, an anarchist scavenger who loves feeding on intellectual carcasses in the margins of culture.

In the notes to Paolucci’s essay, I assembled scholarly, sober comments on the literary sources and the technical problems that Paolucci must have faced when researching and writing the essay. He relied on a vast naturalistic and philosophical literature. Occasionally, my annotations become more personal, and I launch into extemporary ramblings. However, much remains to be done to honor the lesson that Paolucci has to teach still today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century. I hope that this translation will motivate others to read the sources and penetrate deeper into the questions that I raise in the introductory essay, in conversation with a motley crew of philosophers, poets, and free-thinkers.


1. On the intellectual climate at the University of Bologna, during a period spanning the second half of the nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, cf. the many essays edited in Odrini and Tega 1990, which offer valuable discussion on the relation between science and philosophy and especially the philosophical reception of Darwinism at Bologna and in Italy.

2. Mangani 1996, pp. 8 ff, and 1982, pp. 83–90. Cf. also the excellent interpretive essays by various authors collected in Mangani 1982.

3. Paolucci 1878.

4. A valuable collection of documents including the manuscript, the private diary and letters to and from Charles Darwin is preserved in the Bilbioteca Francescana, in Falconara Marittima, Ancona. Giorgio Mangani was able to track down the collection in 2012. An analysis of the precious manuscript remains for future research.

5. Clark 1879.

6. Clark 1879, p. 215. It is remarkable that Paolucci’s essay was known to the American naturalist, and that an American scientist should still read Italian in the late nineteenth century. Unfortunately, the imperialistic ascendance of English in the twentieth century as the only valuable scientific language has dramatically impoverished the scientific community and turned science into a subtle but vicious form of neocolonialism. ← xiii | xiv →


Clark, Xenos. 1879. “Animal music, its nature and origin”. The American Naturalist 13(4), pp. 209–223.

Mangani, Giorgio. 1982. [Ed.] Mostri e fossili. Il gabinetto di storia naturale di Luigi Paolucci. Ancona: il lavoro editoriale.

———. 1996. “Il naturalista Luigi Paolucci (1849–1935)”. In: Piazzini 1996, pp. 7–13.

Odrini, Guido, and Tega, Walter. 1990. [Eds.] Filosofia e scienza a Bologna tra il 1860 e il 1920. Bologna: Cappelli Editore.

Paolucci, Luigi. 1878. Il canto degli uccelli. Note di fisiologia e biologia zoologica in rapporto alla scelta sessuale e alla lotta per l’esistenza. Milan: G. Bernardoni. Retrievable online at: http://dfgviewer.de/show/?set[mets]=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.zvdd.de%2Fdms%2Fmetsresolver%2F%3FPPN%3DPPN641658559&set[image]=

———. 1882. “Il canto degli uccelli. Note di fisiologia e biologia zoologica in rapporto alla scelta sessuale e alla lotta per l’esistenza.” Rivista di Filosofia Scientifica, Anno Secondo, Volume 2, pp. 297–320, and pp. 650–682.

Piazzini, Stefano. 1996. [Ed.] Le collezioni Paolucci di storia naturale. Ancona: il lavoro editoriale.

← xiv | xv →



XVIII, 212
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (September)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Vienna, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XVIII, 212 pp., 13 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Paolo Palmieri (Author)

Paolo Palmieri is a philosopher and historian of science. He received his Ph.D. from the University of London and currently teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. His research focuses on early modern science, phenomenology, the philosophy of hearing in humans, pedagogy, and learning. He has published a number of scholarly articles and books.


Title: A Translation of Luigi Paolucci's «On Birdsong»
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