Environment Blog

Wailing with Whales

December 16, 2008

Clarinet with whale songs: click to listen

Distorted clarinet riffs filled the air. Then howls, hauntingly low and distant, syncopated by short squeals accompanied them. The duet was no experimental jazz styling, but a recording of David Rothenberg jamming with humpback whales.

At a recent talk in New York City, Rothenberg, professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, described making music with the world’s largest mammals. His clarinet often goes unaccompanied.

“It’s a lonely job playing to the whales,” Rothenberg said.

In his most successful interspecies concerto, off the coast of Maui, Hawaii, humpback whales sang during the gaps in Rothenberg’s performance. The audience on the boat could not discern where his clarinet ended and whale song began.

How Rothenberg manages to wail with whales is the subject of his new book, Thousand Mile Song. He describes his quests to boogie with beluga whales north of the Arctic Circle, and jam with orca, or killer, whales near Vancouver Island. A Maui-based project that broadcasts humpback vocals over the internet first introduced Rothenberg to the humpback breeding waters where he recorded his masterpiece duet.

Rothenberg believes music that engages whales can be anything that “leaves space for them to join in.” On a boat deck, Rothenberg plays the clarinet, an instrument that he thinks might sound whale-like. He amplifies the music underwater, which distorts the instrument’s sound. An underwater microphone picks up ocean sounds, including, hopefully, a whale song accompaniment, and sends them to a digital recorder.

The idea that whales make song surfaced in the 1970s when biologists Roger Payne and Scott McVay described humpback whale recordings made by the US Navy. Thirty years later, little is understood about these songs. Only male humpback whales are capable of the intricate pattern of repeated notes most humans would consider music. However, their music does not attract females or elicit aggression from other males, the standard reasons that biologists give to explain animal song. The discrepancy led Rothenberg to believe that, “They have evolved to need to sing like us people.”

His critics believe any possible benefits of his work do not outweigh the risk of disturbing the animals.

“General interest or curiosity is not sufficient justification,” wrote Mark Johnson, an engineer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, in an email.

But, taking a look back in whale history, it was Payne and McVay’s work that helped to heighten whale awareness, leading to the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the end of the whaling business in the United States. Hopefully, Rothenberg’s exploration of the sophisticated whale music will similarly inspire us to help better protect these majestic, endangered creatures.

Also on Scienceline:

Jungle Love and Turf Wars: New technique unlocks tropical birdsong secrets

Army of Animal Oceanographers:  Animal data collectors monitor oceans and ice

Ask: Can sperm whales stun giant squid with sonar?

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