Humpback Whale Songs: Structure, Changes, Singing and Why They Are Sung

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Humpback in Hawaii

Humpback whales produce otherworldly and complex sounds, sometimes called songs, which can reach 170 decibels, louder than the roar of a jet engine. Divers swimming near them say they can feel the sound pounding on their chests. People on boats can feel reverberations in the hull. Sometimes humpback sounds are so loud people on the shore can hear them inside their homes.

Whales may make sound by circulating air inside their heads. Humpbacks control their breathing very carefully when they make their songs. Singing whales usually hang motionless 50 to 100 feet below the surface, head down. A complete song may last for 10 minutes and be repeated continuously for more than 24 hours at a time. In Norway, humpbacks call to each other in low baritones, ascending the musical scale. Low and high notes travel different distances. A whale will call out to a podmate, and the pitch of the reply may indicate how far away it is.. [Source: Pete McBride, Smithsonian magazine, October 2021]

Alberto Lucas López and Oscar A. Santamariña wrote in National Geographic Humpbacks are the unrivaled musical masters of the sea. As juveniles, male humpbacks start picking up songs in bits and segments, listening to their peers in a form of social learning (females vocalize but don’t sing). Once they master a song, it changes slightly, eventually completely, as the population rearranges the tunes over days, weeks, and years. Songs have a complex structure similar to the repetition and rhymes of poetry, and all the males from the same ocean basin sing the same tune until it is modified yet again.[Source: Alberto Lucas López and Oscar A. Santamariña, National Geographic April 15, 2021]

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Fishbase; Encyclopedia of Life; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ; Monterey Bay Aquarium ; MarineBio

Humpback Whale Songs

humpback song spectrogram

Humpback songs are perhaps the longest and most elaborate vocalizations produced by any animal. They are produced almost exclusively by males although males and females sometimes exchange calls when they are feeding and calves and mothers have their own calls. Humpbacks emit a trumpeting cry when they are excited. Scientists have heard whales make these 170 decibel cries when killer whales are near or the feeding is especially good. Some scholars have speculated that singing humpbacks may have inspired the Sirens myth.

Scientists have been studying humpback songs since the 1960s when biologist Roger Payne famously towed a hydrophone behind a sailboat during night off Bermuda, capturing eerie, echoing moans. Male humpbacks often spend six months of the year doing little else but singing. They often hang in mid water producing long sequences of sound that include high squeaks, moans, whoops and grunts. Sometimes individuals separated by several miles while sing at the same time. It used to be thought that females chose males based on their song. Now it is thought be some kind of communication between males.

No one really knows what the songs are about. They may be involved winning allies or used by male to size each other up. The whales produce the most vivid songs when they are in their breeding areas but also produce them during their migrations and when they are feeding, Musing about their purpose Chadwick wrote he “wouldn’t discount even the wildest theories.” Perhaps they are “troubadours...reciting an epic ballad about the history of their kind — who they are and where they come from and how fate shapes their voyages through the seas.”

Songs of humpback whales have recorded off Bermuda by Frank Watlington and later Roger Payne. Other scientist have recorded humpback songs and analyzed in rhythms, harmonics and frequencies. These songs have captivated humans since they were first recorded by U.S. scientists in the 1960s. They even went multi-platinum with the 1970 album "Songs of the Humpback Whale," which helped improve the public image of all whales and remains the best-selling nature album of all time.

Descriptions of Humpback Songs

humbpack song

David Attenborough wrote: "Humpback songs consist of sequences of yelps, growls, high-pitched squeals and long drawn-out rumbles....They are made up of vast roars and groans interspersed with sighs, chirps and squawks. Each song can last up to ten minutes. Having finished it, the humpback will repeat it, chirp for chirp and roar for roar, and go on doing so for hours on end.”

Describing the song of a humpback 40 feet below his boat, Chadwick wrote in National Geographic, "The music was...rising from the waves. Bass rumbles that could have issued from the lowest octave of a cathedral pipe organ gave way to plaintive moans and then glissandos like air squealing out of a balloon when you stretch the neck taut.”

Virginia Morrell wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “From beneath the boat, a sighing, almost mournful sound rises into the air. It is surprisingly loud and has a yearning edge — a pipe player alone, sounding the plaintive notes of love? Or is he calling for a buddy to join him? Or singing to let all whales in Hawaii know that humpbacks rule.”

Craig Welch wrote in National Geographic: What I hear next is deep and guttural, like the low rumble of a bass saxophone dipped in water. The burbling wail begins to climb until it reaches a pinched-off, airy screech, like a child blowing a conch. Soon the sounds change entirely, becoming dark and melodic, then ethereal and wispy. I hear what sounds like a squeegee stroking glass. A high note ends with a chirp that recalls the tiny squeak that slips from a yawning puppy. A bass croak rolls out like a long, slow burp. This is the song of a male humpback whale. Male humpbacks pick up songs from one another. And male humpbacks are into fresh beats. Like pop culture fanatics, they’re always chasing that next sound, eager to find a trendy new tune. The speed with which they adopt new sonic arrangements “is astounding,” Ellen Garland, at the University of St. Andrews, says. So too is a song’s geographic reach. [Source: Craig Welch, National Geographic, April 15, 2021]

Elements in Humpback Songs

Studies of humpback whales indicate they produce what can arguably called music rather than random trills and noises. They often make the same acoustic and aesthetic choices and abide by the same rules of composition that human musicians and composers do. Some scientists insist they can hear rhythms. Linguists claim the songs have hierarchal syntax, a key element of language.

Humpback songs last up to 30 minutes and may be longest and most complex vocalization in the animal kingdom. The notes form phrases and the phrases form repeated themes that have a striking range of tones from “piccolo chirrups and songbird tweets to low-pitched foghorn blasts and cello movements and sound that humans can’t even hear. Each song has between two to nine themes, which are sung in a specific order.

Craig Welch wrote in National Geographic: Humpbacks trumpet, bark, and groan, and make noises like mewling kittens. But in their basic structure, humpbacks’ sophisticated symphonies can be spookily similar to our own... Humpback songs employ rhyme and rhythm, phrasing and melody. There are themes followed by variations and returns to those original statements. Whales have been around for 50 million years. Before recent decades, there was little possibility that humans and humpbacks had heard each other’s melodies. “Yet whales use many of the same laws of composition in their songs that we use in ours,” Payne wrote in his book Among Whales. A single whale song may last half an hour. A single whale may sing all afternoon. [Source: Craig Welch, National Geographic, April 15, 2021]

Male humpbacks use rhythms that are common in human music and musical phrases of a similar length. Even though they can produce vocalizations of at least seven octaves, the sing in "stepwise lilting" musical intervals rather than confusingly moving from one octave to another. The humpbacks follow a favorite device of human composers, the so called A-B-A form, in which a theme is introduced and elaborated on and then refined. They also mix percussive and pure tones in a ratio consistent with that used in Western classical music. Some humpback songs contain song refrains that rhyme. Musicians find it very easy to play along with humpback songs. [Source: Natalie Angier, New York Times, January 9, 2001]

A Humpback Song

One song, recorded and translated into human music by composer David Rothenberg, is from one humpback repeatedly singing one song off the coast of Maui, Hawaii. Alberto Lucas López and Oscar A. Santamariña, National Geographic” Humpback songs can be heard by the human ear, but their pace is slower than ours, making it hard to recognize melody. Researchers first identified their “songs” by printing out recorded spectrograms, which show pitch and timing. Visualized as shapes, song patterns emerged.

Humpback whale songs typically span five to 30 minutes. A whale may repeat a song many times during marathon stretches that can last up to 22 hours. Experts call these marathons Song Sessions. Visually, one can see the same segment, represented as a spectrogram translated into a visual shape of sound, to capture pitch and timing.

These simplified, colored musical units are joined into longer patterns to form phrases, which are then connected to construct themes. The themes are similar to individual lines of poetry or words in a song. A phrase is a sequence of units A theme is a sequence of phrases. A SONG is a sequence of themes (labeled in our score as A through F).

This humpback whale song recorded in Hawaii lasts eight minutes and two seconds. It’s made up of a series of themes (A+B+A+C+D+E+F). To better understand the complexity of its structure, we’ve drawn and colored the simplified shapes of its spectrogram to more easily distinguish patterns. Similarly, we’ve translated the simplified shapes into the human code of musical notes, so that musicians and singers can play the song themselves.

Changes in Humpback Songs

Humpbacks in different areas have different songs and those in one area often sing the same song. Themes vary between different groups of whales and also vary from year to year among a particular group. There are two primary humpback group in Australia: one on each coast. Once a couple of whale from the west coast group joined the each group and taught them the west coast song.

Although the songs in a given community are the same, individual whales have their own voices. Many populations sing the same phrases in the same sequences with individuals deciding how many times to repeat each part. The songs are changed constantly. When changes are made by an individual they changes are often made by entire community. They can also be retained from one year to the next. When the breeding season is over and the whales disperse. Sometimes they pick up the song again right where they left off when the gather again the next year.

The songs can evolve over time. In the 1990s the songs made by males in Hawaii ended with a rising series of whoops just before they came up for air. A year late the “the finale switched to a series of ribbits”. By the mid 2000s, the song had only four themes, that even novices seemed to have no difficulty picking up, down from eight in previous years. In 2006 there were six themes, according to Chadwick, “one with a recently added flourish of four loud squeak. and the final noises before surfacing were more like a buzz.”

Humpback Singing Behavior

In 1997, Jim Darling, a marine biologist who has spent a lot of time studying humpback songs, debunked the assumption that the songs were used by males to attract mates, saying instead most are made by males for other males. He determined this based on a number of experiments in which whales were observed while humpback songs were played from speaker in water. Females rarely showed any interest while males will often hurried over to the sound source to investigate.

Interestingly, most male songs don’t appear to be bellowing challenges like, for example, the loud calls by bull elks, rather they seem be welcoming social gestures. When a song is vocalized single whales often swim around together in way that doesn’t seem aggressive. Darling told National Geographic, “A singer is often joined by another nonsinging male. The singer usually stops singing, then one, the other, or both may swim off. They song clearly has a role in male relationships in the breeding ground — and to date, there is no evidence that females are attracted to it.”

Most of the time humpback males sing while they are stationary and move around when the stop singing. A series of encounters between five whales observed by Darling in March 2000 went something like this: 1) Whale A sings and swims for a mile or so and is joined by whale B, who hangs around for about five minutes and departs. 2) whale A then swims 2.4 miles and meets whale C who sings for about 6 minutes before moving on. 3) Whale A then swims about 4.2 miles and meets whale D. Whale D sings for about 5 minutes. And finally 4) whale A swims 0.7 miles and starts singing, attracting whale E.

Sometimes humpback males whales sing while on the move. A series of encounters demonstration this behavior observed by Darling in March 2002 began with; 1) whale A sing and swimming for about 2.4 miles, with the singing ending when the whale breaches; 2) nonsinging whale A then swimming 1.2 miles, passing whale singing B but not interacting with him; 3) nonsinging whale A then swims 2 miles to whale singing C. While C stops singing and the two whales swim off silently together.

Spread and Improvisation of Humpback Songs

A Humpback song can spread across an ocean basin. Craig Welch wrote in National Geographic: Researchers had long assumed all humpbacks in an area shared the same song each year. “That’s not what we found at all,” Garland says. Using spectrograms that transform sound frequencies into pictures, revealing the amplitude and patterns of whale songs, she analyzed years of whale tunes across the South Pacific. She reviewed humpback songs in French Polynesia, then moved toward songs from Australia, some 3,700 miles away. [Source: Craig Welch, National Geographic, April 15, 2021]

She noticed something curious. Songs appeared to originate in Australia. They would evolve as whales began to tinker. Like composers, they’d add hiccups or whistles or new verses. But then, like a pop song that suddenly catches fire and takes a hemisphere by storm, this new song would roll from whale to whale across thousands of miles, moving from New Caledonia to Tonga, then a year later to the Cook Islands.

The tune that wound up in French Polynesia would be similar to the song that first appeared in Australia. Despite minor tinkering along the way, the final version was not much different from an acoustic cover of an original hit. Yet it was unrecognizable from the song it was replacing. This new production was as unlike its predecessor “as the Rolling Stones and Justin Bieber,” Garland tells me.

Garland was floored. She suspects whales respond to the song’s novelty. In the same way hipsters seek out new indie bands, male whales appear to pick up new tunes to stand out from the crowd. But eventually all of the males will abandon their song and switch to the novel one. That kind of progression once was unexpected. It’s a rare moment in the animal kingdom of rapid transformational change — a true cultural revolution. Birds moving into another flock tend to take up calls of their hosts, Garland says. But when a whale hits open-mike night with a hot new number, locals drop their old ballad to belt out a new one. Garland offers an analogy: Imagine moving to a neighboring country where everyone you meet swaps his or her national anthem for yours. “It is incredibly, incredibly weird,” she says.

Strange Heartbeat Sound from Humpback Whales

In 2015, scientists announced that they had recorded a very different, low-frequency made by humpbacks wintering in Hawaii. The sound was first heard in 2005 by Jim Darling, a research biologist with Whale Trust Maui, but it took him years to capture high-quality recordings. "Imagine hearing a heartbeat-like sound in the ocean but not knowing the source," the trust said in a statement. "Whale Trust researchers spent a decade listening for these sounds and wondering what they were. Finally, on a calm glassy day these sounds were recorded within a few meters of a pair of humpback whales." [Source: Russell McLendon, Mother Nature Network, December 28, 2015]

Mother Nature Network reported: “The "pulse trains" were recorded near Maui, where some 10,000 humpbacks migrate from Alaska every winter to breed, give birth and nurse. They typically occur at a frequency of around 40 hertz (Hz), according to Whale Trust. Human hearing ranges from 20,000 to 20 Hz, so they're just barely audible to us. These sounds are deeper than any confirmed humpback call, and as Darling tells National Geographic, he didn't think he was listening to an animal at first. He initially looked for passing helicopters and "then started wondering about submarines," he says, adding that "whales were way down the list."

“Darling still can't be 100 percent certain whales are making this sound, although he says that's the most likely explanation. For one thing, the two humpbacks were the closest known suspects when the beat was recorded. "Even more convincing," Whale Trust notes in its statement, "the sounds increased in volume as the whales got closer and became softer as the whales swam away."

“Even if humpbacks are responsible for these beats, it's too early to speculate about their purpose. But as Darling points out in his study about the discovery, they were recorded during breeding season when both males and females were present, raising the possibility that female humpbacks aren't as quiet as we thought. "Is it part of the extensive male repertoire of sounds," he asks rhetorically in the study, "or is it female communication in an acoustic niche avoiding the high male-generated noise levels of the winter assembly?"

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated June 2023

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