is the sound
The word "song
" is used to describe the pattern
of regular and predictable sounds made by some species of whales,
notably the Humpback Whale
. This is
included with or in comparison with music
male humpback whales have been described as "inveterate composers
" of songs that are "'strikingly similar'
to human musical traditions".
The mechanisms used to produce sound vary from one family of
to another. Marine mammals
, such as whales
, and porpoises
, are much more dependent on sound for
communication and sensation than are land mammals, because other
senses are of limited effectiveness in water. Sight
is less effective for marine mammals
because of the way water absorbs light
also is limited, as molecules
diffuse more slowly in water than in air, which makes smelling less
effective. In addition, the speed of
in water is roughly four times that in the atmosphere at
. Because sea mammals are so
dependent on hearing to communicate and feed, environmentalists and
are concerned that they are
being harmed by the increased ambient noise in the world's oceans
caused by ships and marine seismic surveys.
Production of sound
Humans produce sound by expelling air through the larynx
. The vocal cords
within the larynx open and close as necessary to separate the
stream of air into discrete pockets of air. These pockets are
shaped by the throat
, and lips
into the desired
sound, allowing humans to speak
Cetacean sound production differs markedly from this mechanism. The
precise mechanism differs in the two major suborders of
cetaceans: the Odontoceti
—including dolphins) and the
—including the largest whales, such as the Blue Whale
Odontocete whale sound production
Idealized dolphin head showing the
regions involved in sound production.
This image was redrawn from Cranford (2000).
Toothed whales do not make the long, low-frequency sounds known as
the whale song. Instead, they produce rapid bursts of
high-frequency clicks and whistles. Single clicks are generally
used for echolocation
collections of clicks and whistles are used for communication.
Though a large pod of dolphins will produce a wide range of
different noises, very little is known about the meaning of the
sound. Frankel quotes one researcher who says listening to a school
of odontocetes is like listening to a group of children at a school
The multiple sounds odontocetes make are produced by passing air
through a structure in the head called the phonic lips. This
structure functions like the human nasal cavity. As the air passes
through this narrow passage, the phonic lip membranes are sucked
together, causing the surrounding tissue to vibrate. These
vibrations can, as with the vibrations in the human larynx, be
consciously controlled with great sensitivity. The vibrations pass
through the tissue of the head to the melon
, which shapes and directs the sound into
a beam of sound useful in echolocation. Every toothed whale except
the sperm whale
has two sets of phonic
lips and is thus capable of making two sounds independently. Once
the air has passed the phonic lips it enters the vestibular sac
. From there, the air may be
recycled back into the lower part of the nasal complex, ready to be
used for sound creation again, or passed out through the
name for phonic
lips—museau de singe
—translates to "monkey lips," which
the phonic lip structure is supposed to resemble. New cranial
analysis using computed
and single photon
emission computed tomography
scans in 2004 showed, at least in
the case of bottlenose dolphins, that air might be supplied to the
nasal complex from the lungs by the palatopharyngeal sphincter
enabling the sound creation process to continue for as long as the
dolphin is able to hold its breath.
Mysticete whale sound production
Baleen whales, formally called mysticetes, do not have phonic lip
structure. Instead, they have a larynx that appears to play a role
in sound production, but it lacks vocal cords and scientists remain
uncertain as to the exact mechanism. The process, however, cannot
be completely analogous to humans because whales do not have to
exhale in order to produce sound. It is likely that they recycle
air around the body for this purpose. Cranial sinuses may also be
used to create the sounds, but again researchers are currently
Mysticete whale sound levels
The frequency of baleen whale sounds ranges from 10 Hz to 31 kHz. A
list of typical levels is shown in the table below.
Purpose of whale-created sounds
While the complex sounds of the Humpback whale (and some blue
whales) are believed to be primarily used in sexual selection
, the simpler sounds of
other whales have a year-round use. While toothed whales are
capable of using echolocation to detect the size and nature of
objects, this capability has never been demonstrated in baleen
whales. Further, unlike some fish such as sharks
, a whale's sense of smell is not highly
developed. Thus, given the poor visibility of aquatic environments
and the fact that sound travels so well in water, sounds audible to
humans may play a role in navigation. For instance, the depth of
water or the existence of a large obstruction ahead may be detected
by loud noises made by baleen whales.
The singing of whale songs for aesthetic
enjoyment, personal satisfaction, or 'for art's sake', is "an
untestable question in scientific terms."
Song of the Humpback Whale
of whales, the Humpback Whale and the subspecies of Blue Whale
found in the Indian
Ocean, are known to produce a series of repetitious
sounds at varying frequencies.
Humpback whale, sound spectrum
This is known as whale song.
Marine biologist Philip Clapham describes the song as "probably the
most complex in the animal kingdom".
Male humpback whales perform these vocalizations only during the
mating season, and so it is believed the purpose of songs is to aid
sexual selection. Whether the songs are a competitive behavior
between males seeking the same mate, a means of defining territory
or a "flirting" behavior from a male to a female is not known and
the subject of ongoing research. Males have been observed singing
while simultaneously acting as an "escort" whale in the immediate
vicinity of a female. Singing has also been recorded in competitive
groups of whales that are composed of one female and multiple
Interest in whale song was aroused by researchers Roger Payne
after the songs were brought to their attention by a
Bermudian named Frank Watlington who was working for the US
government at the SOFAR station listening for Russian submarines
with underwater hydrophones off the coast of the island.
The songs follow a distinct hierarchical structure. The base units
of the song (sometimes loosely called the "notes
") are single uninterrupted emissions of
sound that last up to a few seconds. These sounds vary in frequency
from 20 Hz to 10 kHz (the typical human range of hearing is 20 Hz
to 20 kHz). The units may be frequency modulated
(i.e., the pitch of
the sound may go up, down, or stay the same during the note) or
or quieter). However the adjustment of bandwidth on a spectrogram
representation of the song reveals the essentially pulsed
nature of the FM
A collection of four or six units is known as a sub-phrase
, lasting perhaps ten seconds (see also
). A collection of two
sub-phrases is a phrase. A whale will typically repeat the same
phrase over and over for two to four minutes. This is known as a
theme. A collection of themes is known as a song. The whale will
repeat the same song, which last up to 30 or so minutes, over and
over again over the course of hours or even days. This "Russian doll
" hierarchy of sounds has captured
the imagination of scientists.
All the whales in an area sing virtually the same song at any point
in time and the song is constantly and slowly evolving over time.
For example, over the course of a month a particular unit that
started as an "upsweep" (increasing in frequency) might slowly
flatten to become a constant note. Another unit may get steadily
louder. The pace of evolution of a whale's song also changes—some
years the song may change quite rapidly, whereas in other years
little variation may be recorded.
Idealized schematic of the song of a
Redrawn from Payne, et al. (1983)
Whales occupying the same geographical areas (which can be as large
as entire ocean basins) tend to sing similar songs, with only
slight variations. Whales from non-overlapping regions sing
entirely different songs.
As the song evolves, it appears that old patterns are not
revisited. An analysis of 19 years of whale songs found that while
general patterns in song could be spotted, the same combination
Humpback whales may also make stand-alone sounds that do not form
part of a song, particularly during courtship rituals. Finally,
humpbacks make a third class of sound called the feeding call. This
is a long sound (5 to 10 s duration) of near constant frequency.
Humpbacks generally feed cooperatively by gathering in groups,
swimming underneath shoals of fish and all lunging up vertically
through the fish and out of the water together. Prior to these
lunges, whales make their feeding call. The exact purpose of the
call is not known, but research suggests that fish know what it
means. When the sound was played back to them, a group of herring
responded to the sound by moving away from the call, even though no
whale was present.
Some scientists have proposed that Humpback Whale songs may serve
purpose, but has
been subject to disagreement.
Other whale sounds
Most baleen whales make sounds at about 15–20 hertz
. However, marine
biologists, led by Mary Ann Daher, at the Woods Hole
Oceanographic Institution reported in New
Scientist in December 2004 that she had been tracking a
whale in the North Pacific for 12 years that was "singing" at 52
The scientists are unable to explain this dramatic
difference from the norm; however, they believe the whale is baleen
and unlikely to be a new species, suggesting that currently known
species may have a wider vocal range than previously thought.
Most other whales and dolphins produce sounds of varying degrees of
complexity. Of particular interest is the Beluga
(the "sea canary") which produces an
immense variety of whistles, clicks and pulses.
Though some observers suggest that undue fascination has been
placed on the whales' songs simply because the animals are under
the sea, most marine mammal scientists believe that sound plays a
particularly vital role in the development and well-being of
cetaceans. It may be argued those against whaling
the behavior in an
attempt to bolster their case, noting for example that little
account is taken of the "moo" of cattle
Conversely, pro-whaling nations are perhaps disposed to downplay
the meaning of the sounds given the surrounding commercial and
Researchers use hydrophones
adapted from their original military use in tracking submarines) to
ascertain the exact location of the origin of whale noises. Their
methods allow them also to detect how far through an ocean a sound
travels. Research by Dr. Christopher Clark of Cornell
University conducted using military data showed that whale
noises travel for thousands of kilometres.
As well as
providing information about song production, the data allows
researchers to follow the migratory path of whales throughout the
"singing" (mating) season. One important finding is that whales in
a process called the Lombard effect
adjust their song to compensate for background noise pollution
Prior to the introduction of human noise production, Clark says the
noises may have travelled right from one side of an ocean to the
other, agreeing with a thirty-year-old concept blaming large-scale
shipping. His research indicates that ambient noise from boats is
doubling with each decade. This has the effect of reducing the
range at which whale noises can be heard. Clark admitted to being
particularly concerned by this increase in ambient noise. Environmentalists
fear that such boat
activity is putting undue stress on the animals as well as making
it difficult to find a mate.
- Songs of the Humpback Whale (SWR 118) was originally
released in 1970 by CRM Records from
recordings made by Roger Payne, Frank
Watlington and others. The LP was later re-released by Capitol Records, published in a flexible format in the National
Geographic Society magazine, Volume 155, Number 1, in January 1979
and released on CD by BGO-Beat Goes On in 2001.
- Deep Voices: The Second Whale Record (Capitol Records
ST-11598) was released on LP in 1977 from additional recordings
made by Roger Payne, and re-released on
CD in 1995 by Living Music. It includes recordings of humpbacks,
blues, and rights.
- Northern Whales (MGE 19) was released by Music Gallery Editions from
recordings made by Pierre Ouellet, John Ford, and others affiliated
with Interspecies Music
and Communication Research. It includes recordings of belugas,
narwhals, orca, and bearded seals.
- Sounds of the Earth: Humpback Whales (Oreade Music)
was released on CD in 1999.
- Rapture of the Deep: Humpback Whale Singing (Compass
Recordings) was released on CD in 2001.
- Payne Roger, quoted in: Author(s): Susan Milius. "Music without
Borders", p.253. Source: Science News, Vol. 157, No. 16,
(15 April, 2000), pp. 252-254. Published by: Society for Science
& the Public.
- Sound production, by Adam S. Frankel, in the
Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals (pp 1126–1137) ISBN
- Entomologist Thomas Eisner, quoted in: Milius (2000),
- Scheifele PM, Andrew S, Cooper RA, Darre M, Musiek FE, Max L.
(2005). St. Lawrence River beluga Indication of a Lombard vocal
response in the St. Lawrence River Beluga. J Acoust Soc Am. 117(3
- Lone whale's song remains a mystery, New
Scientist, issue number 2477, 11 December 2004
- Helweg, D.A., Frankel, A.S., Mobley Jr, J.R. and Herman, L.M., “Humpback whale song: our current
understanding,” in Marine Mammal Sensory Systems, J. A.
Thomas, R. A. Kastelein, and A. Y. Supin, Eds. New York: Plenum,
1992, pp. 459–483.
- In search of impulse sound sources in odontocetes by
Ted Cranford in Hearing by whales and dolphins (W. Lu, A.
Popper and R. Fays eds.). Springer-Verlag (2000).
- Progressive changes in the songs of humpback whales
(Megaptera novaeangliae): a detailed analysis of two
seasons in Hawaii by K.B.Payne, P. Tyack and R.S. Payne in
Communication and behavior of whales. Westview Press