ECOS 39 (4): Undergraduate winner: And I whale always love you

Looking at sonic performances that utilise whale song are there possibilities for inter-species collaboration and what might they reveal about human impacts on natural soundscapes?

Sounds from the deep

In the oceanic depths, far beneath our own conscious spectrum, lies a dance like cacophony. In a place still relatively undiscovered a symphony of snapping, clicking, gurgling, burbling connects with our primal instincts.

Our world’s oceans possess mystery that allows for exhilarating performances, and in this exploration, sonic performance. Who are the performers that inhabit this marine environment?

Regarding the whale with musical intent gives this creature great scope for performativity (language as a form of social action). By exploring the potential of interspecies collaboration are there possibilities to widen the discussion of animal song and its place within the arts? If so what positive repercussions could this have for whale conservation? In western world lifestyles a growing detachment from nature is sustained by the notion of human exceptionalism, of untouchable hierarchy, and this distances us from our impact on nature. We are living on the cusp of a new epoch: “the Anthropocene – in which human-caused changes to earth systems have outpaced all ‘naturally occurring’ geological, biologic, and atmospheric factors”.1

Anthropogenic mechanical sounds such as sonar signals from naval ships, engines from boats, air guns used to detect oil and drilling from oil rigs make up the majority of sound in the ocean today and interrupt the communication of whales, limiting them as composers by restricting them from hearing another whale’s song. As these trends intensify, how is our communication with whale song prohibited and our connectedness to the natural world forgotten in a discordant dichotomy?

Songs of the Humpback whale

Prior to the latter half of the twentieth century, whale song was heard only by a lucky few at Naval sonar bases, who were listening out for sonar signals from enemy submarines. It was not until Scott McVay and Roger Payne’s Songs of the Humpback Whale that a large audience was introduced to the bellowing notes and tones of the whale. This first descriptive paper on humpback whale songs was released as a sound page in the National Geographic, in 1979 becoming the number one selling nature recording. Hitting multi-platinum the album has sold more than 30m copies.

Artists’ involvement

The idolisation of whales following Songs of the Humpback Whale brought artists into the conversation. Influential mainstream music came in an abundance of collaborative pieces where whale song was either sampled or used for inspiration. Whalesong was on the rise and musicians took full advantage of this occurrence, inspiring influential composers and popular musicians such as George Crumb, Alan Hovhaness, and Judy Collins.2 However what became evident was an unwitting reflection of exploitation and anthropomorphising to fit human ideals of music. Although giving the whale itself a distinctive spotlight, the human is considered the performer. Little thought is given to the whale’s own composition and musical intent.

David Rothenberg’s interspecies duet

However, David Rothenberg, a crusader in whale song and performative collaboration is in pursuit of a true interspecies duet where his music is simply an accompaniment to animal music. In February 2007, off the coast of Maui, equipped with hydrophones, underwater microphones, and speakers, Rothenberg set sail. Placing the hydrophones either side of the boat conveyed sound to one whale which was believed to be nearby and another no further than a thousand meters away. What followed was a one of a kind performance.

From: Payne, R. and McVay, S. (1971). A hand drawn sonogram depicting the repetition of whale song, from Songs of the Humpback Whales, available at: [accessed 20 March 2018]. Creative Commons Licence.
Depiction of how Rothenberg used the technology to capture the recording

Throughout this improvisational performance the male humpback whale adjusted his pitch, timing, tone and rhythm to match the sound of the clarinet.

Sonogram depicting Rothenberg’s collaborative clarinet piece with two humpback whales

Figure 2 depicts the sonogram taken from this performance. The screenshot is around ten seconds of the musical interaction between clarinet and whale and shows “graphic displays of sound showing time and frequency, where time is represented from left to right on the x-axis, and frequency from low to high on the y-axis”.2 The grey represents the clarinet whilst the black portrays the humpback whale. This particular frame shows the time of 53 seconds to 1.03 minutes. Rothenberg states that: “At 55 seconds the whale makes two superhigh squeaks again, and then after my short bluesy phrase he seems to match with the booweah sound, and then we are all together, me and the two whales, playing almost a single chord at 1 minute 2 seconds”.3a In figure 2 you can see the humpback whale trying to match the pitch of the clarinet with duet like clarity. The overlapping of whale and clarinet, as shown in figure 1, effortlessly bounce off each other. The interweaving qualities of this performance become so melodious and harmonious that it becomes difficult to differentiate between what note is being produced by whale and what note by clarinet.

Rothenberg notes that as the duet progressed the music being played from the clarinet became increasingly un-enjoyable for people on board the boat. The performance transcends our notion of music as it distanced itself from what is familiar to the listener. Rothenberg states that as the “encounter progresses, I found myself playing fewer phrases that I enjoyed and more that seemed to engage the leaps and plunges of the whales’ aesthetic world”.3b  Rothenberg, instead of consciously performing with an anthropocentric state of mind, followed the pattern of animal music resulting in what I consider successful collaboration with the whale, harnessing the musical thing-power of these animals placing them centre as performer with an evolved narrative. This human-cetacean duet expands the possibilities of what one interprets to be performance, as the whale and clarinet bounced off one another in a dance-like motion.

Equilibrium to help save the environment

By understanding the vibrancy of the whales’ own song similarities between humans and the natural world, a connectedness arises. A narrative voice is established giving tangible reasons to care for our biospheres. Accessing nature’s soundscapes allows for the potential to understand whales and consider them as performers who exist with narratives and musical structures of their own. Noise pollution has in some respects poisoned our oceans. If the notion of musical intent in whale species is a state commonly agreed then our disruption of whale song through anthropogenic noise pollution would be considered detrimental to the discovery that animals possess the capability to enjoy what many believe as human activities. Seeing the whale as a musical creator highlights its depth and intelligence which is of benefit to all species. Whales’ capability to make music makes them more familiar to us, and has the potential to instill a more holistic caring attitude in humans.

The force of nature’s own soundscapes

Performance is not solely inherent in human beings; music can be found in the wildest most undiscovered places. We are made to believe that music has solely evolved from us and therefore we are the ultimate deciders of what is musical in the world,5 and that if something appears foreign to our ear, if it doesn’t make sense, then it is alien and incorporation into our lives is inconceivable. Whales are not only the ocean’s greatest performers, they are also “composers constantly incorporating new elements into their old tune”.6 By regarding these creatures as such, we are at the edge of understanding and broadening our awareness of our shared blue planet. A world where we appreciate what is larger than us, and perhaps seemingly inconceivable. By thinking laterally where all nature is considered in an equilibrium, we can come closer to understanding the power of whales’ sonic narratives. There is musicality in nature and music is vital for our existence. Although we may not fully understand it, music helps us to feel what is greater, to feel connected in a world that’s often divided. Therefore, the power of the natural soundscape should not be disregarded in performance it is a force unto itself with a narrative to tell. To drown out nature’s own composers to increasing noise pollution which disrupts species’ homes and habitats, would be to lose our intuitive souls, our connectedness to the greater ecosystem. The natural world has something to say and all we need do is listen.

References and notes

Figures 1 and 2 reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs licence

1.  May, T. (2017) “Tú eres mi otro yo.” Staying with the Trouble: Ecodramaturgy & the AnthropoScene, (vol.29, no.2), pp.1-18.

2. Krause, B. (2013). The Great Animal Orchestra, London: Profile Books Ltd.

3a.  Rothenberg, D. (2008b). “To Wail With a Whale Anatomy of an Interspecies Duet.” Trans. Revista Transcultural de Musica, (12) [online] available at: [accessed 20 March 2018].

3b.  Rothenberg, D. (2008a). “Whale Music: Anatomy of an Interspecies Duet.” Leonardo Music Journal, (vol.18),  pp.47-53.

4. Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham and London: Duke University Press. <<Insert text from page footnote here

5.  Krause, B. (2016). Wild Soundscapes, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

6.  Miller, J. (1979). “A Whale of a Song.” Science News, (vol.115, no.2), pp. 26-27.

See also:   Rothenberg, D. (2017). WhaleMuseSeek. [online video]. 3 November 2017. Available at: [accessed 2 April 2018].


Constance Eldon McCaig graduated from the University of Exeter in 2018 with a degree in drama.

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McCaig, Constance “ECOS 39 (4): Undergraduate winner: And I whale always love you” ECOS vol. 39(4), 2018, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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