Grade Levels: 3-5, 6-8

In this BirdSleuth lesson plan which is adaptable for grades 4-8, students learn about sound and how spectrograms reflect pitch and duration. Students then create their own spectrogram to represent songs they hear.

Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology BirdSleuth K-12

Lesson Plan Common Core State Standards Alignments

Students will:

  1. Learn about sound, pitch, and duration.
  2. Learn how spectrograms reflect pitch and duration.
  3. Listen to bird songs and correctly match them with their respective spectrograms.
  4. Define the x- and y-axes of a spectrogram.
  5. Create their own spectrograms to represent songs they hear.


  • Whiteboard
  • Individual computers for students to use
  • Internet access for BrainPOP
  • Pencils and paper


Background information: There are almost 10,000 species of bird in the world. Each species has its own unique set of vocalizations—some beautiful, some harsh, and some quite humorous. If you can learn those songs, you can identify what birds are around you even if you can’t see them. In Bird Song Hero, you are presented with colorful sound visualizations called spectrograms. Bird songs can span more pitches than a piano in just a tenth of a second. You can visualize these changes through spectrograms. Spectrograms are like graphs. You see time from left to right on the x-axis, and pitch from low to high on the y-axis. The longer the line is, the longer the duration of the note or phrase of the song. The brighter the line is, the louder. Spectrograms stimulate the visual part of our brain to help us appreciate birds as vocal geniuses and commit song patterns to memory. That’s why many birders use them as they learn to identify birds. For a more in-depth tutorial, you can check out Bird Song Hero training video, provided by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bird Academy website. This video gives you a short introduction to spectrograms and instructions on playing the game.

Lesson Procedure:

  1. Play Bird Song Hero:
    1. Play each song as many times as students need, encouraging them to listen closely for patterns.
    2. When students are ready, pick the matching sound visualization, or spectrogram.
    3. Explore the other spectrogram options so you can train your brain to see and hear the differences.
    4. Finish the level to see your score and move on to the Ultimate round.
  2. Practice creating and sounding out spectrograms:
    1. On a whiteboard, draw x- and y-axes. Explain that these are parts of a graph and represent information that is important for understanding a spectrogram. Introduce the x- and y-axes, making sure that students understand that time is measured in the x-axis and pitch on the y-axis.
    2. Draw a simple spectrogram and put it on display for students to see. Be sure to include descending or ascending lines of different lengths. Explain that the different lengths of line indicated the duration of the note or phrase.
    3. Sound out the spectrogram with your students by whistling or humming. Emphasize the higher or lower pitches and the short or drawn-out notes. Have students sound out the spectrogram as a class or ask for a few volunteers. If the students are struggling with a certain part of the spectrogram, take time to review what each of the axes represents focusing on that portion of the spectrogram. Have the students sound out the complete spectrogram again.
    4. Divide students into groups of two. Explain that each student will create their own simple spectrogram for their partner to sound out. Allow students time to create and sound out each other’s spectrograms.
    5. Explain that the students will now whistle or hum a very short song for which their partner will draw the spectrogram. Instruct students to label their axes.
    6. Have each group share their favorite song and spectrogram and discuss which was the trickiest part and why. Encourage them to use the terms pitch and duration in their explanations.
  3. Write or project the following questions for discussion or writing prompts:
    1. How is a spectrogram similar to a musical score?
    2. Is bird song music? Why or why not?
    3. What can you learn from a spectrogram that is different from only listening to a song?

Extension Activities:

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has many resources to help you teach and learn about birds, get involved with citizen science, and help protect our planet. To further develop spectrogram literacy, encourage your students to draw a spectrogram of an actual bird song audio clip from the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library website. Explore bird song by discovering what birds are communicating when they sing. Download The Cornell Lab’s BirdSleuth K-12 program’s free Bird Communication curriculum, complete with six dynamic activities. You and your students will investigate why and how birds communicate and learn to appreciate the songs you hear everyday. For more lesson plans, make sure to visit the BirdSleuth website and check out their free resources for educators. Browse the free media library on the Cornell Lab’s Bird Academy website to find free videos, interactives, and games to help students learn about biology through the colorful lives of birds.