It Took A Musician's Ear To Decode The Complex Song In Whale Calls Male humpback whales create "songs" together, scientists say. Katy Payne was the first to hear the shifts in pitch and pattern in the collective calls as complex music — haunting, evolving tunes.
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It Took A Musician's Ear To Decode The Complex Song In Whale Calls

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It Took A Musician's Ear To Decode The Complex Song In Whale Calls

It Took A Musician's Ear To Decode The Complex Song In Whale Calls

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Humpback whales do not just sing songs. They are continually changing those songs.


GREENE: Scientists discovered this through close listening, decoding nature through sound. That's MORNING EDITION's latest project with NPR correspondent Christopher Joyce and audio producer Bill McQuay from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Today, they tell the story of how whale biologist Katy Payne discovered whale song.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: The first scientist to realize that whales sing songs were Katy and Roger Payne. In fact, it was this recording they heard.


BILL MCQUAY: Katy's now in her late 70s. We asked her to come to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to listen again and describe that moment.

KATY PAYNE: It's the voice of a male humpback whale in the offshore banks off of Bermuda in 1964. It was recorded by a Navy engineer.

JOYCE: The Navy engineer was Frank Watlington. The Paynes met him on a trip to Bermuda. He shared their passion for whales. He invited the Paynes aboard his ship.

PAYNE: We had no idea we were going to hear anything. He said I don't suppose you've ever heard the sounds that these animals make.

JOYCE: And then he played the song of the humpback whale.


PAYNE: I had never heard anything like it, oh my God. Tears flowed from our cheeks. You know, we were just completely transfixed and amazed because the sounds were so beautiful, so powerful, so variable. And as we eventually learned, they were all the products of one singing animal - one animal.

MCQUAY: Watlington had been recording with underwater microphones - hydrophones. The Navy used hydrophones to listen for enemy ships.

PAYNE: I don't think anybody knew what he was picking up except himself, and he kept it a secret.

MCQUAY: Watlington said he was afraid whalers would use the songs to find and kill whales. He gave the tapes to the Paynes, and said go save the whales.

JOYCE: These tapes were a revelation. And there was something peculiar about the sounds - something the Paynes didn't realize at first. It took Katy's special skill to discover it.

PAYNE: I majored in music with biology as a secondary - whatever, major - but I was sort of my own person, really. I was always watching and listening to animals.

JOYCE: Payne took the tapes home. She was taking care of her four young children at the time. When she could find time, she listened and lost herself in another world.

PAYNE: OK, we call this the beginning sound.


PAYNE: Do you hear echoes - from the bottom of the sea, the underside of the wave? Every sound, all the whales are listening. They're listening. They've memorized this song.

MCQUAY: Katy wanted to see the sounds, so she got spectrograms of them - visual representations of sound with peaks and valleys and gaps. She traced them with a pencil and paper.

JOYCE: She began to see structure, what looked like melodies and rhythms. It was pattern recognition, seeing what she initially heard.

PAYNE: It's a crazy sort of arrhythmic portion of the song. But it's coming into another rhythmic portion.

JOYCE: It's going up in pitch.

PAYNE: Yes, not random.


MCQUAY: Not random is a key concept here. Lots of animals have calls or vocalization.

JOYCE: Right, but these vocalizations were changing, evolving. At any one time, all the humpbacks in the population sing the song in the same way. As time passes, though, all parts of the song change - in rhythm, in pitch, in duration - and all the whales repeat the changes. They were creating new songs - composing. And Katy has actually memorized many of these songs. She can sing them note for note.

MCQUAY: She sang one for us to show how the whale changes its song.

PAYNE: Here's a comparison of just single phrases in different years.

MCQUAY: You hear Katy first, then the whale just behind her.

PAYNE: (Imitating whale vocalizations).


PAYNE: (Imitating whale vocalizations).


PAYNE: (Imitating whale vocalizations).


JOYCE: Two years later, that phrase went from six elements to 14. All the added sounds come at the end, like a musical coda.

PAYNE: (Imitating whale vocalizations).


PAYNE: It turned out that only males do the singing, mostly at breeding time, and they gradually modify their songs. We asked Katy why they did that.

PAYNE: We don't know. Ask the whale. But we can say that it seems to be attractive to be an innovative male. Perhaps it's what we call sexual selection. The female is selecting the innovative male - sort of like jazz players, right?

JOYCE: (Laughter).

PAYNE: Right? This is a fascinating thing. There is a methodical repetition. But at the same time, there's innovation.

JOYCE: At first, other biologists didn't believe whales collectively composed new songs. Even Payne's husband was skeptical. Vocalizing animals were not supposed to make up new stuff.

MCQUAY: So the Paynes got their own hydrophones and boats. They went back to Bermuda, and then to Hawaii and South America. They spent years recording whales.

JOYCE: They showed scientists a way to illuminate life in the deep ocean - not with a flashlight, but with the ear.


JOYCE: And many young scientists followed the Paynes' lead. One of those scientists was Christopher Clark. He first joined the Paynes in Patagonia, Argentina, in 1972, to help record southern right whales.

CHRISTOPHER CLARK: And you'd sit there, and you'd listen to the whales blowing and the sea elephants snorting on the beach.

JOYCE: At night, the Paynes made their own music on a violin and cello.

PAYNE: We gave Chris a guitar.

CLARK: And I taught myself how to play the guitar under the Southern Cross.

PAYNE: It was a free and playful time. God, it was wonderful.

JOYCE: Chris was hooked. And soon, he would hear things in the ocean that even the Paynes ever imagined.

JOYCE: I'm Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

MCQUAY: And I'm Bill McQuay.

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