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Nature’s greatest hit: The old and new songs of the humpback whale

September 2014

Michael Deal's whalesong visualisations

Musician and writer David Rothenberg is currently compiling the best whale songs ever recorded, a collection of which is to be released later this year by Important Records. Here he looks at the human history of whale song and asks "is their musical culture going downhill? Or is it on the rise? Can we humans even tell the difference?"

What album was so important that ten million copies of it needed to be pressed at once? Readers of a music magazine might be surprised to learn the identity of the greatest single pressing of any album of recorded music was Songs Of The Humpback Whale. In 1979 National Geographic magazine inserted a flexible sound page inside the back cover of all of its editions in 25 languages, and that is supposedly how many they printed. No human pop star has ever received such magnanimous treatment, so what is it that is so special about the songs of the humpback whale?

Well, for one, humans knew nothing of this fabulous sound until the US Navy released its classified recordings at the end of the 1960s, at the very moment the world was most open to sounds from the unknown: the psychedelic and the trippy. Humpback whale song fit the bill perfectly. From high wails to deep growls to rhythmic scratches to tearful moans, it encompasses the full range of emotions in the longest song performed by any animal, a tune that can go on for nearly 24 hours at a time. People are often moved to tears on their first exposure to such intensity. Some cannot believe it could ever come from a place as silent as the sea. This song touched classical, pop, folk and jazz musics, and it’s credited with inspiring a global movement to save the whales, which continues to this day.

And yet no one knew of its beauty until the military decided, 15 years earlier, to build a network of underwater microphones, called hydrophones, to track the secret rumblings of Soviet submarines and sonar codes at the height of the Cold War. I’m not sure they heard much of anything save the sounds of whales, dolphins and shrimp, yet they kept the secret from the public for more than a decade.

Imagine this: Somewhere off the coast of Bermuda, 1958, a sonar operator puzzles over tones he’s picking up on his headphones. Then he sees a spout off the bow of his ship… “My god captain…. these sounds are coming from whales! ” A decade later, sonar operator Frank Watlington was authorised to turn his recordings over to budding whale scientist Roger Payne and his sidekick Scott McVay, personal assistant to the President of Princeton University and past researcher in the laboratory of dolphin madman John C Lilly. McVay later went on to head Robert Sterling Clark and Geraldine R Dodge Foundations in New Jersey, but back then he and his mathematician wife Hella laid out primitive sonograms of fragments of the whale’s songs on their living room floor. Each ten seconds of song took about one hour to spew out from a thermal-paper printing sonograph device that was designed during the Second World War to help break military codes, but by the 60s it was used mainly to turn sound into visual data where it could better be analysed by speech therapists and animal sound scientists.


Hella was the first to notice that when the sound was turned into image, a structure immediately became clear. “Amazing… it repeats!” she exclaimed, and we had visual proof that this great animal, the size of a New York City bus, was making something structured a lot like human music. Their story appeared on the cover of Science magazine (above) with at least one line quite rare for a scientific publication to include: “The humpback whale,” wrote Payne and McVay, “emits a surprisingly beautiful series of sounds.”

Around the same time as the scientific publication hit the press, they were smart enough to release the original version of Songs Of The Humpback Whale, with a surprising White Album-style cover, which also included a 48-page booklet in English and Japanese detailing the dire situation many species of great whales faced. McVay took boxes of the albums to Japan, and when he played the whale music on radio and television, Japanese audiences were moved to tears.

National Geographic mass-produced a portion of this original music ten years later; the same recording ended up in Star Trek IV, when Kirk, Spock and the rest of the Enterprise crew return from the future to save the whales. Indeed, Songs Of The Humpback Whale in its many editions is the best selling nature recording of all time, achieving multi-platinum status over the decades since its original release. “It is a good record,” once opined Jon Carroll, editor of Rolling Stone. “Let’s hope it doesn’t become a trippy record.” Good luck with that Jon. There’s no escaping fate: “Whale song, I must have whale song” says the hippy community college professor in an episode of The Simpsons years later, as he tries to seduce Marge, his latest teacher’s pet.

40-odd years later some people think of whale song as the greatest musical cliché of the new age. What symbolises make-me-one-with-everything excess better than these ominous moans and bleats that we still can’t make head or tail of? Anyone who spends a bit more time actually listening to the music will hear that it’s not just one long "whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaooooh". On the contrary, the long moan is only one note in a complex composition, with distinct phrases, repetition, structure, organisation, shape and form akin to many kinds of human music. This is no random outburst of cries and whispers, but a song with power, verve, identity and design.

When the wonder of this song first became widely known to musicians at the beginning of the 1970s, many genres found use for it, from classical composers George Crumb and Alan Hohvaness, jazz musicians Charlie Haden and Paul Winter, to popular artists Lou Reed, Tangerine Dream, Judy Collins, Captain Beefheart and the late Pete Seeger, whose song “The World’s Last Whale” might best explain the musicality of the thing in itself:

“It was down off Bermuda
Early last spring,

Near an underwater mountain
Where the humpbacks sing,
I lowered a microphone

A quarter mile down,
Switched on the recorder
And let the tape spin around.

“I didn’t just hear grunting,
I didn’t just hear squeaks,
I didn’t just hear bellows,
I didn’t just hear shrieks.
It was the musical singing
And the passionate wail
That came from the heart
Of the world’s last whale.”

As whale song entered the realm of popular artistic inspiration, so it began to be taken more seriously by science. Over the past half century we’ve learned much more about it: only male whales sing, so it is generally assumed by scientists that they do so to attract the attention of female whales. However, in the five decades people have been studying this phenomenon, nobody has ever seen a female whale show any visible interest in the song.

In any one ocean, the humpbacks sing roughly the same song. But the song does not remain the same. As an ocean-wide population, the whales change the song, all together, gradually evolving new phrases and patterns from week to week, month to month, and year to year. Over the decades we can trace the gradual change of the phrases.

But if they all sing the same song, why do they need to change it? Such change is rare in the animal world – birds don’t do anything like this. Some believe the change is made for the sake of change alone, like our constant need for a new hit song. Maybe the whales, like us, just get bored with the old tunes. If so, one wonders why other musical animal species don’t try the same trick?

So just how different from the glory days is the whale song of today? Roger Payne has repeatedly said that the whale song of the 60s is deeper and far more beautiful than anything the whales are singing these days, but people usually feel that way about the pop music of their youth.

One thing’s for sure, we have much better recording techniques at our disposal in the 21st century, from full spectrum hydrophones to high powered noise reduction techniques accessible from any laptop. Where are the hit humpback tunes of today? Have they evolved away from melody and harmony into grit and noise and weirdness just like human pop music? I’m only being halfway facetious here. The increased human openness to hearing all sounds as music should mean that whale song sounds far more musical to us today than it ever did, even in the trippy 60s. I asked Jon Carroll if he remembered how he felt the first time he heard humpback whale song before he wrote that Rolling Stone review. “Come on,” he scoffed, “it was the 60s, I don’t remember anything.”

A desire to go beyond memory and into the sounds of reality has led John Brien of Important Records and I to plan a release called New Songs Of The Humpback Whale, which aims to gather the best recent recordings of scientists and whale listeners the globe over, so we can assess what has happened to whale song during the last few decades. One can hear gradual changes in humpback song from year to year, with some phrases lengthening, others shortening, others disappearing altogether as new variations appear. The change can be heard month to month, and even week to week within a single season. So Roger Payne is right: today’s whale songs should sound quite different from what he fondly remembers from the 60s. But is their musical culture going downhill? Or is it on the rise? Can we humans even tell the difference?

The standard way to visually show the structure of complex sounds that don’t have the usual clear pitches of human music is to use sonograms, which are now easy to instantly generate from any computer. These work for scientists and musicians because many of the sounds made by animals have a distinct form and structure, but not the usual tones and rhythms of human music, which are the only sounds musical notation can translate into images. A flat horizontal line in a sonogram means a steady clear pitch, a vertical line means a clap or a rhythmic hit, and a busy, beautiful image of many layers and patterns means a sound with complex overtones and a noisy character – just the kind of thing that eludes easy description. But even these sonograms can look daunting to the uninitiated. I asked the digital designer and data visualizer Michael Deal to try his hand at simplifying these instantly generated images, colour-coding them in order to reveal the alien but organised structure of humpback whale song.


Already in 1970 Roger Payne and Scott McVay realised the song had a hierarchical structure, but since their initial publication of this fact, no one has really tried to improve upon their visualisation using the dynamic and interactive techniques now available to us.

Roger Payne and Scott McVay's sound hierarchy

Such complex animal songs are actually quite rare in nature, but at such levels of beauty, there are strange parallels. Speed up a humpback whale song and it sounds surprisingly like the song of a thrush nightingale, with a similar balance between rhythms, jumps and long clear tones. Both of these animals are ‘outliers’, with unexpectedly beautiful and complicated songs. In neither case can we accurately explain why such a song needed to evolve so extensively. But aesthetically, there are definite parallels. Does such a parallel mean anything? Perhaps there are basic principles at the root of what different species understand to be beautiful. Evolution, as Charles Darwin knew well, is much more than survival of the fittest, but it also includes survival of the beautiful, through sexual selection, which is supposed to explain why whale songs are so long and moving, even though we have yet to see a female whale show any reaction to it.

Though humpback whale song did not evolve for humans to appreciate, it may be no accident that we are its best audience. The beautiful has evolved in the same world we have evolved, and this may be one reason we are always drawn to nature.

But what does it take to record the best whale songs? Technology isn’t all that you need. One must have time (a lot of it) to go out on the water, drop your hydrophone deep down, get ready to listen, and to wait. Film crews rarely have the time to get the best, and scientists often have too much to do and not enough days in the field. Some of the best recordings have been made by Paul Knapp, who spends winter and spring in the Caribbean, camping on a beach in Tortola and quietly taking visitors out to listen to humpback whales. He’s neither a scientist nor a marine wildlife manager, just a man who loves sharing this song with anyone who wants to come and listen. To my ears the recording he made on Valentine’s Day 1992 is still the best I’ve ever heard.

“I remember that day well,” Paul told me. “It was the 14th of February, and I was all alone. I went slowly and with respect to the spot I always go to listen at the mouth of the bay. I didn’t even see the whale. I think he was used to me by then and used to the sound of my engine. The whole moment made sense.” Tall, tanned and in his mid-50s, he looks like a patient man. “It’s never been quite like that again. But I keep coming back – waiting, listening.”

People all over the world are taking whale songs apart in the laboratory, but only Paul goes out every day just to listen. He has no desire to get too close to the whales he is hearing. “Sure, I’ve heard a lot of close-up recordings, where people are chasing the whales in big fast boats. Yeah, I’ve heard those songs. Those whales sound pretty stressed out to me.”

No one who hears these darkly beautiful tones for themselves can easily forget them. Upon hearing the great song for the first time, Roger Payne said he heard the size of the ocean, “as if I had walked into a dark cave to hear wave after wave of echoes cascading back from the darkness beyond… That's what whales do, give the ocean its voice.” Most work on the meaning of these tones is far more prosaic, involving pages of calculations, summary charts that have a hard time containing the original beauty.

Far fewer scientists are now studying humpback whale song than in the heyday of its popularity in the 1970s. The beauty of the song helped galvanise worldwide support for a global moratorium on whale hunting passed by the International Whaling Commission in 1986, but since then the population of humpback whales has rebound to a fairly healthy level. Scientists say they can’t get money to study an unusual species that is no longer endangered, even though it has the most interesting sonic behaviour of any creature under the sea. There is more money available to study how to prevent endangered northern right whales from colliding into ships in busy Boston Harbour, or to study the all but unknown beaked whale species most damaged by the US Navy’s latest sonar tests. Humpback are doing all right, as long as Japan doesn’t reinstate its Antarctic humpback hunt as threatened every year.

One scientist committed to working on humpbacks is Olivier Adam, at the University of Paris Sud in Paris, Orsay. A researcher working in the spirit of Payne and McVay, Adam appreciates the beauty of the song and has worked for years in the muddy waters off Madagascar to make the best possible recordings. When not working on whales he is also researches the indigenous music of this island nation, and he is not afraid to tackle some of the toughest problems in humpback song research, such as: exactly how do humpbacks make such tremendous songs? It turns out that no one really knows. No humpback has survived in captivity long enough for anyone to examine the process closely. But Olivier and his team have just published the first attempt at a model of the song production process that might explain how the whales do it. Crucially, no air leaves the whale while he sings. This might make the humpback whale the greatest circular breather the Earth has ever known.


He also believes that he might be able to solve the mystery of how whales can change their songs so rapidly, all together, across a single vast ocean over a rapid period of time. “These whales don’t stay put during singing season,” he smiles. “They swim all over the oceans, travelling widely, even when we thought they were concentrated in a few mating and calving locales. They move and sing much farther and faster than anyone previously thought.”

The selection of songs on our Important Records compilation will come from many places. Glen Edney, formerly a whale watching tour operator in Tonga, contributed one beautiful hour long song. Sal Cerchio, a researcher at the Bronx Zoo’s Wildlife Conservation Society, offered the best of his several decades of African coastal recordings. Paul Knapp, my favourite recordist, declined to let us use his song, which I personally still consider the best, although you can get it from his web page. I offer my own recording made (unusually) in Hawaii in very shallow, muddy water, just after a storm, when one lone male was singing close to the shore in Kihei. These conditions explain why there is very little background noise on this recording, and what little there was I took out.

Underwater can be a noisy place, especially from the perspective of a hydrophone, which can pick up the ubiquitious crackling noise of snapping shrimp, the thrum of boat engines up to ten kilometers away, and the rubbing of cables and anchors against the boat itself. Sometimes so many whales are singing, it’shard to isolate the pattern and structure of just one. In fact, most underwater whale recordings feature many whales, and they sound like overlapping insect choruses more than clear solos. But noise reduction software is pretty advanced today, and can almost automatically remove continuous frequencies that get in the way of what we want to hear.

And of course, given that these songs can go on for hours, how do you decide how much to release? I would like to offer up many hours of a single performance, to encourage a human audience to get into whale time, to slow down, to try to take the whole song in at an extended scale beyond the usual senses of our own species. In concerts when I play along with whale song, I usually do it for only five to ten minutes, but I want to do it for at least 30 minutes, maybe a whole hour, to really change the way audiences sense what more-than-human music can be.

Some of these sounds strain the limits of human aesthetic sense. Booming lows too deep to relax with, leaping suddenly to high screams, constitute vast contrasts in our emotional perceptions. A few years ago humpback brains were found to contain a kind of cell called a spindle neuron that previously was only known to appear in the brains of higher order primates, those animals thought to be able to experience complex emotions. This means that whales can be counted as members of a small club, of which we and chimpanzees are both members. It is most likely in these deep and complex songs that the whales let loose the widest range their feelings can contain.

Once I remember my friends in Hawaii – many of them devotees of a dream of getting back to nature that sometimes includes living off of fruit and nuts and sleeping naked in a hammock for weeks in a valley in Kauai – were shocked that I believed one could mess around aesthetically with something as great and pure and sacred as humpback whale song by playing and performing with it. I understand their sentiment, but any human encounter with these great whales always involves some messing around. It’s more common to dream of swimming with whales, looking them in the eye and having your life suddenly transformed. I’ve met more than a few people who say it’s happened to them. I prefer to close my eyes, put on the headphones and listen.


But I want my own personal epiphany too. I want to join in. I’ll play my clarinet and sax into the sound world of the whales. I’ve done it in Hawaii and I’ll be doing it in Tonga and the Silver Bank off the Dominican Republic in the future. Honestly I don’t know if the whales care, or if any great interspecies music happens as a result. Sometimes I like what happens, and I’ve put these recordings on my record Whale Music and in the book Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music In A Sea Of Sound. But for now I’m trying to delve deeper into the whales’ own songs. They do sound different than the first whale songs recorded in the 60s, and to every generation they will sound different again, as our ears, just like the whale’s songs, are constantly on the move.

David Rothenberg's compilation New Songs Of The Humpback Whale is due out on Important Records later this year. He released Cicada Dream Band, recorded with Pauline Oliveros, Timothy Hill and a lot of cicadas, at the beginning of September.


Quality article from the excellent David Rothenberg. His inter-species research and music into and with birds, whales and insects is highly original and inspiring and brought beautifully to life in performance.

Quality article from the excellent David Rothenberg. His inter-species research and music into and with birds, whales and insects is highly original and inspiring and brought beautifully to life in performance.

Really interesting article. Thanks for your work, I intend to follow these links and buy some of this music.

And when is this intriguing compilation due?
The article is dated September 2014, so a year onward and still no release?
I'm really interested to hear it....


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