Humpback whales are "inveterate composers," says Roger Payne of the Ocean Alliance in Lincoln, Mass., after 3 decades of oceanic listening. The most musicianlike of the whales, male humpbacks sing while cruising around their summer breeding grounds or migrating. The loud, wavering songs string together several repeated phrases or themes, and one whale's session of song after song can stretch more than 24 hours.
Males change their songs as the months pass. All the males in the same ocean sing basically the same tunes, even though the current hit takes some time to travel. "There seems to be no limit to what they can come up with. It's just that they get there by modifying existing sounds rather than by creating them de novo, as is our habit," Payne observes.
Whatever the process, humpbacks sing in patterns that Payne calls "strikingly similar" to human musical traditions. He detects rhythms, phrases that last just a few seconds, song lengths ranging between those of human ballads and symphonic movements, and percussive elements as an occasional emphasis in longer strains of pure tones. Even though a whale can woo-oo over at least seven octaves, Payne finds that it combines notes that have wavelength relationships familiar to people's ears.
Most surprising, says Payne, is the discovery that humpbacks use rhymes. "When someone speaks in a language you don't understand, you still know when they are reciting poetry," he argues. Among whales, a particular sound repeats at relatively regular intervals.
These rhymes may be for whales just what moon, spoon, and June do for human crooners, suggest Linda Guinee and Katy Payne of Cornell University. For a long concert during breeding season, the rhymes may help the performer remember what comes next. When Guinee and Payne checked for rhymes in simple and elaborate humpback songs, the complex ones were much more likely to rhyme.Payne, R. 2000. Whale songs; musicality, or mantra? American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting and Science Exposition. Feb. 20. Washington, D.C.
Bioacoustic Research Program
Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology
Ithaca, NY 14850
The Ocean Alliance
191 Weston Road
Lincoln, MA 01773
From Science News, Vol. 157, No. 16, April 15, 2000, p. 252.