Although they are born with an instinctive repertoire of musical sounds, Canaries only reach peak performance if they have something to listen to and learn from. In the wild this would be fellow Canaries, but many breeders supplement the bird’s innate skills with various musical teaching techniques.
These born singers will do even better with a bit of extra teaching
From the very earliest days of Canary keeping, people realised that the birds could be taught to assimilate new sounds into their repertoires, either from wild birds or woodwind-based musical instruments. The mimicry is approximate, the introduced music adding more in the way of shape and tone than in actual note-by-note repertoire. But breeders have always taken this teacher-pupil relationship very seriously, and modern science has borne out the relationship between a good bird singer and a good song teacher.
In the 1700s French Canary keepers developed a special instrument for assisting their birds’ musical efforts. It was called the serinette (after the Canary’s Old French name Serin, from Latin serinus). It wasn’t used exclusively with Canaries, but with all caged songbirds susceptible to a bit of teaching. It had a series of pipes, into which wind was pumped via a bellows with a handle, and worked on the same basis as a barrel organ. The flute-like notes inspired the Canaries to impersonate them, and this is still the basis of teaching the birds today (but without custom-built serinettes, sadly).
A Serinette by Bennard of Mirecourt, France, 1757
The sopranino recorder was a more readily available Canary song aid. Pieces of music were written specifically for the instrument, and played to the Canary to whet its musical imagination.
Over the decades this ability to sing and learn has been boosted at a genetic level by selecting the best singers for breeding. Scientific study has pitched in too, demonstrating how songbirds in general learn the basics when they are very young, the song-receptor part of their brain remaining active at all times (even during sleep). Just as a child will not grasp a language unless spoken to constantly, so a Canary will fail to reach his singing potential without assistance. It appears that the show-stopping singers are ones who have been actively encouraged – by their fellow birds and by modern stand-ins for the serinette and recorder – to sing.