Adults have dark-streaked olive-brown upperparts with a light brown breast with fine streaks, a white belly, and a white throat. They have a brown cap with a grey stripe in the middle, olive-brown wings, and a narrow tail. Their face is grey with brown cheeks, a brown line through the eye, and an eye ring. They are somewhat similar in appearance to the song sparrow.
The sparrow species derives its name from its colorful repertoire of songs. Enthusiasts report that one of the songs heard often in suburban locations closely resembles the opening four notes of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. The male uses a fairly complex song to declare ownership of its territory and attract females.
Singing itself consists of a combination of repeated notes, quickly passing isolated notes, and trills. The songs are very crisp, clear, and precise, making them easily distinguishable by human ears. A particular song is determined not only by pitch and rhythm but also by the timbre of the trills. Although one bird will know many songs—as many as 20 different tunes with as many as 1000 improvised variations on the basic theme, unlike thrushes, the song sparrow usually repeats the same song many times before switching to a different song.