Grey Scales

Olivia, a Timneh African Grey parrot, has a knack for learning and composing music.

By Gerard Nolan

Olivia, my mother’s parrot, has been known on occasion to bob her head and drop fat beats from her beak in exchange for peanuts. She and I have logged many beat-box sessions, our heads bobbing in unison as we create mad rhythms. But Olivia’s musical skills and repertoire extend well beyond beat-boxing.

Olivia is something of an avian musical prodigy. Most of the music she composes can only be described as avant-garde. That is to say, she’s pushing the sonic envelope with her experimental, atonal, minimalist compositions. And while I can’t say I am sophisticated enough to fully appreciate their inchoate beauty, I still can catch a small glimpse of her staggering genius.

In addition to her accomplished career as a composer, she’s a versatile vocalist, able to mimic the ring of a telephone or the timbre of family members’ voices. Her range and control are impressive. She can project a shrill whistle that can be heard across the street with all the doors and windows closed. And with her lower register, she can utter phrases in my brother’s tone of voice. But most of the time she just asks questions. These four are her most oft-repeated.

“Are you okay?” she’ll ask, plaintively.

“Wanna go out?” I am not sure whether she’s talking about the dog or herself.

“What?” She likes to scream this, in a manner akin to Lil’ John’s vocal performance in that Usher song from the ’00s.

“Wanna peanut?” This is self explanatory.

At night, she coos a faint “wooo,” her way of saying good night without disturbing those who may be sleeping. Indeed, Olivia is an extraordinary animal. African Grey parrots rank among the most intelligent animals—and they’re first among parrots when it comes to mimicry, second only to mynas if we consider all avian species.

She answers the phone by beeping and intoning a deep, rich “hello” She has a penchant for laughing at jokes. She even screams during family quarrels. Parrots are very vocal and social creatures, and Olivia likes to respond to the loudest human vocalizations, like explosions of laughter or shouting matches. If you call her name from another room, she’ll reply variously with a chirp, a laugh, or a whistle. We also have two other birds, a parakeet and a Senegal parrot. And each morning she and our other two birds welcome the new day with a chorus of peeps that fill the house.


Recently, I started to think Olivia had entered a new phase of her musical career—writing Christmas carol melodies that had already been written centuries ago. I had begun to notice Olivia’s whistling the opening notes of a familiar tune, ‘Good King Wenceslas.’  I began entertain the thought that she had miraculously crafted the tune on her own—independent of human influence. It was as if she had tapped into some sort of ethereal, transcendent repository of beautiful Christmas melodies.

I deluded myself into believing this for weeks. Perhaps it was because I am, at bottom, an impractical dreamer. Or perhaps I suffered from a temporary lapse in sanity. I suspect it was a bit of both.  A more reasonable person would at worst suffer a kind of cognitive dissonance, holding both the idea that Olivia had composed the musical phrase by herself and the idea that she had somehow learned it through human intervention as true. But eventually this person would probably come to her senses. I’d like to tell you that this was the case for me. But it wasn’t. Reflecting on the matter, I do recall a faint feeling that I might have been mistaken, but I soon dispensed with such notions. Soon I believed with an almost religious fervor that Olivia was an ornithic Mozart. No one, to my knowledge, had taught her the opening notes of the song, so naturally I thought that the most plausible explanation was that she had come up with it herself. Philosophers call this an appeal to the best explanation. My logic was airtight.

In hindsight, I realize that the probability of Olivia’s writing the musical phrase is close to 0. In order to get a sense of the number of note combinations possible, I performed a little thought experiment.

Olivia whistled only the opening seven notes of the Christmas carol. Let us determine the odds that Olivia could have randomly whistled these notes using only one octave, divided into 12 notes. The seven opening notes just happen to fit within one octave. To simplify things, let’s say that the song can only be whistled in one key, so that there is only one seven-note sequence in an octave that would correspond to the opening seven notes of the song’s melody. We can calculate the number of combinations of notes by calculating 12 to the 7th power, which equals 35, 831, 808 note combinations. So Olivia, under the constraints of the thought experiment, each time she whistles a string of 7 notes, has a 1 in 35, 831, 808 chance of whistling the 7 opening notes of ‘Good King Wenceslas’. And that’s if Olivia whistles with perfect randomness, which she doesn’t. Moreover, even if she did happen to whistle this string of notes, she probably wouldn’t repeat the string. And there are probably factors that I am not even thinking of that would push the probability of Olivia’s whistling this particular musical phrase to an even more astronomical level.


After a few weeks, I learned that Olivia had learned the tune from my sister, Alisa. Even today, part of me still wants to believe it. Like a committed conspiracy theorist, I want to ignore any and all facts that could falsify my preposterous theory.

I want Olivia to be that musical genius again.

Still, Olivia is a fine beat-boxer. Perhaps the best bird beat-maker in the world:


4 thoughts on “Grey Scales

  1. very interesting even though some of it–i didnt understand (graduated from tech)…..nice blog entry gerard……

  2. Thank you for allowing us a glimpse into the life of the beautiful and talented Olivia……perhaps for her higher expectations in life are not required and being a “beat-boxer” is her contribution..

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