Moans, chordles & squeaks
Humpback whales make song-like patterns of sound. The looping rhythms sound just slow enough that it's hard to hear how similar the songs are to our own.
Here's a clip of a whale near Tortola, Virgin Islands, with a pattern of five distinct sound units.
Touch the shapes to hear the sounds:
The full song combines nine colored sound units:
Code breaking

Each colored glyph shows the average shape of a repeating sound's audio print. Since the sound range of a whale call matches that of a piano, we can lay glyphs over the familiar bars of sheet music:

Slow jams

Here's the transcription of the full 21-minute recording of the same whale, singing the same song three times before swimming away from the microphone for a breath of air. Each loop has four to five blocks of repeating phrases, with minor variation:

Whale pop

Humpbacks in the same area of the planet all sing the same song, with the same structure. The pattern changes over seasons.

As a variation catches on through a population, like a hit single, the whales change the shared song together, in sync. It's the only planet-scale spread of culture documented outside of humans.

Here's a song from a humpback population near Maui, with a different regional style:

Our mammalian cousins

Any animal capable of this kind of expression is worth protecting. To chip in to save the whales, cop a poster of the Virgin Islands song above. All proceeds after printing costs are donated to Whale Trust Maui.

And if grunts and bloops turn you on, check out David Rothenberg's collection of the best whale song recordings of the past thirty years. The CD includes sheet music for the Maui song above, so you can moan along.

Read more on this project here.

  • Published in the The New York Times and The Wire magazine
  • Presented on stage at SciViz Conference, Creative Tech Week, the Explorers Club, and Art & Science of Whales at Icahn School of Medicine
  • Featured on Germany's UFA Show & Factual TV show
  • Tortola recording by Paul Knapp Jr.
  • Maui recording by David Rothenberg—animal whispering, philospher-author-musician, who offered much guidance throughout this whole project.