A reader writes:

I found it interesting that you decided not to quote Alex Ross' comment about the research on birds and music, but felt strongly enough about his work to mention his latest book. The point that Ross made was that maybe the researchers were narrowly defining "modern music" in only using Schoenberg, Carter, and similar composers who write very dense dissonant music. Maybe, the results would have been quite different for the sparrows had the researchers used Orchard_oriole Messiaen's music to define "modern."

If you're not sure what Ross' point is, it's this: Messiaen's music, while often dissonant and dense, makes abundant use of the actual melodies (including rhythms) of songbirds. Many of Messiaen's compositions use birdsongs as their source material. Other notable "modern" composers have done the same (for example, John Harbison). Ross--and I--wonder what the sparrow's reaction to THAT modern music would have been.

(Sidenote: I'm a composer, and I often have trouble making heads and tails out of Carter and Schoenberg, precisely because it is HUMAN ART at its highest form. Asking sparrows to make sense out of such music is like asking your beagles to choose between a Rothko and a Rembrandt, or an essay by you and an essay by Juan Cole. In the end, this kind of art isn't meant to be "natural" or reflective of anything natural. It is a human activity, as every artist knows... if only the viewers/listeners/readers could remember that, too...

Another reader counters:

Saying that Messiaen invalidates the music-bird experiment is like saying that dusk invalidates the difference between day and night.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.