The Songs of Cetaceans

Cetaceans occupy the boundary between the known and the unknown, sharing more in common with our species than most other nonhuman animals and yet inhabiting an entirely different world. They, of course, have no such difficulty in navigating this other realm, the “ephemeral, shifting shoreline or in a buoyant, fluid medium” described by Dallmeyer (2003). They live in a three-dimensional world, sensing and communicating acoustically.

The wild whale escapes human observation and examination to an extent that other animals cannot. Although the planet is largely dominated by their ocean home, humans continue to exist as primarily terrestrial creatures. We know relatively little about the environment that dominates most of our earth; we know more about the surface of other planets that we know of our own sea floor. Our species’ relationship with the sea has a long and rich history, and yet we struggle to fully understand and explore a realm that is structured so differently to the one we are used to.

For most of us, we experience and navigate the world through sight. For marine mammals that live underwater, where chemical cues and light transmit poorly, sound is a far more useful tool. Sound transmits very well underwater, much better than it does in air, so signals and songs can be heard over great distances.

Since the groundbreaking and largely accidental discovery of whale song in 1967 by Roger Payne and Scott MacVay, researchers have compared whale song and its complexities to human-produced music. Recognisable musical qualities such as repetition, predictable structure and even rhyme can be found in the song of a humpback.


Other cetaceans are heavily dependant on sound, though arguably in less musical ways. For some, like orca, their experience of sound is more equivalent to language, with different groups having different dialects.

To help see these patterns in humpback music, Science magazine used this colour coded diagram in their August 1971 issue:


Whale song has artistic elements beyond mere communication of information. Each whale theme ends with consistent final sounds which as been interpreted as a kind of “rhyme”. Arguably, this is not unlike a modern pop song.

Extraordinarily, while the humpback whales in each population use distinctly different dialects of song, all the whales within a population can change their song together synchronously. They can do this despite roaming territories that can span thousands of miles. A whale in Mexico and a whale in Hawaii can sing roughly the same song, and then essentially switch tracks.

As male humpbacks are the performers of this music, the prevailing scientific theory behind these whale songs has long been that these songs hold some kind of reproductive purpose. Recent research suggests that females have little response or involvement to the music, leading whale researchers to conclude that it may be a form of male-to-male acoustic display.

David Rothenberg, however, is yet to be convinced. As an inter-species musician and composer, he has considered the relationship between nature and humanity for many years. He makes the claim that “there must be some emotional reason we and the whales need [music]”.

Behavioural ecologist Peter Tyack is inclined to agree, suggesting that “humpback song is a form of animal culture, just like music for humans would be.” Charles Darwin recognised animal consciousness in 1872 with The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, yet nearly a century and a half later the academic community still struggles to unravel the emotional lives of animals. It is so unreasonable to suggest that cetaceans possess a desire for self-expression, an appreciation for aesthetics and even creativity? Until now, these desires have been regarded as exclusively human in nature but is this just a consequence of our anthropocentric understanding of the natural world?

Whether artistic expression is the whales’ intention, it has undeniably been accepted as such by millions of human listeners. Songs of the Humpback Whale is the most popular environmental album in history, with over 10,000,000 copies distributed through the January 1979 issue of National Geographic and selling over 100,000 copies in its own right. The album proved formative in Greenpeace’s ‘Save the Whales’ campaign, jumpstarting the environmental movement and ushering in a new era of activism on behalf of cetaceans and other charismatic megafauna.

Gothenburg is not the only musician to collaborate with cetaceans. In the same year as the release of Songs of the Humpback Whale, Judy Collins included the song “Farewell to Tarwathie” on her album Whales and Nightingales. The song, which is an adaptation of a traditional whaling song and features actual whales in the background, went gold. Collins said of the song:

“You hear the whales come in, and then I join them […] And it is like a call and response in a way, because I am having a dialogue with them — and vice versa, because they are answering me as well, and in a sense reaching out into the human species.”

Similarly, Alan Hovhaness, an American 20th century composer created the symphonic poem ...And God Created Great Whales, featuring a full orchestra playing alongside recorded whale sounds. And in an advertisement for an Australian telecommunications company, a group of orchestral musicians attempt to communicate with humpback whales by imitating their song at sea (albeit in a largely stylised and unrealistic fashion).

As climate change changes the underwater soundscape and noise pollution takes its toll, it may be time to turn our ears towards the waves. The sea has songs to offer us if only we choose to listen.


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