Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

I sat next to Dr. Roger Payne at lunch. He talked to me about the songs of the Humpback Wales that he has been recording for decades. He is the authority of this field. He explained to me that Humpback Whales sang beautiful songs. They copy from each other, remixing the songs and add to the songs. These songs evolve over time and riffs get passed from whale to whale across the world. The songs have lots of interesting variations and even have rhymes. He made an interesting observation that the whale songs of the 60's were much more beautiful than the whale songs these days.

I suggested that he made some of these songs available online via Creative Commons and he agreed that this would be a cool idea and agreed to work on this. For now, you can find three of his CD's on Whales Alive, Deep Voices and Songs of the Humpback Whale.

I look forward to when we have some whale songs on ccMixter.


Years later, scientists decipher the songs:

"Krill! Krill! Krill! There's a hell of a lot of krill here!"

"Krill? Did you say krill? I could kill for some krill right about now. Where did you say I could find this lovely krill?"

"Krilllllllll! Krrrrrilll-rrrrrillll-rrrrrillll!"


What did he mean by "whale songs of the 60's being much more beautiful than the whale songs these days"? What a fascinating comment, are there highs and lows in the whale society in terms of musical perfection? Are we looking at a generation of whales who have ignored their parents focus on sharp music for a more grungy type beat? Maybe younger whales are the hip hop generation and Dr. Roger's earlier recordings are of classical whales. Fascinating.

Of course he was talking about beautiful to human beings. It would be interesting to see if the whales felt the same way. ;-)

He also mentioned another interesting theory. The said that some people thought that the Sirens in Odyssey were the songs of the whales coming through the hulls of the ships of the day.

I'd imagine the oceans of the world are a fair bit more polluted today then they were 40 years ago...

I'd also venture to say there is a fair bit more unpleasant human music today than there was 40 years ago... ;)

That said, the propagation of whale singing culture must be fascinating. Has anyone produced and inforgraphics? Timeline maps? Would really be very interesting to see!! :)

I didn't think it would take long for someone to blame poor music on pollution ;-) That is interesting about the Sirens as well. Fishing stock would have been much higher in those days and therefore there could have been a lot more whales. It would be totally believable to think that this could be where the legends of the Sirens comes from. You meet some really interesting people Joi.

I am not sure what would be the copyright that could be the object of a CC license here.

Whales don't get a copyright on their songs, only human creators do. And while "sound recordings" are listed as subject matter of copyright under Section 102 Number 7, the "originality" involved seems to be that of the whales, not of the person doing the sound recording.

I wonder if complexity in whale song can be detected and measured. Were the 60's more so, or less? There's no solid data to support this, but I am sure that whales have noted our presence and our growing numbers.

I'd want to know what this guy thinks is "beautiful music". Xenakis? Subotnick? Liszt? Varese? Chowning? John Adams? Squarepusher? Stereolab? Pavement? Camouflage Danse?

But this is a great post, and it's this kind of post that makes me like this blog, and find it valuable.

Keep up the great blogging, my friend.

This is fascinating stuff.

While it's likely true that only whales could PROPERLY judge the beauty of a whale's song we humans have long been guilty of such presumption. Consider the "paintings" of elephants and chimps that we adjudge works of art.

Lovely lovely lovely blog; so glad I stumbled into it.

Rave parties are to blame for the decline in whale song.

In the 1990s, whales started to gather in crowds and sing *really really fast* all night long -- which of course left them exhausted for days afterward. The scene went downhill since then.

.....But seriously: human whaling and overfishing ARE responsible for the decline of the whale species. If we could decipher the whale songs beyond mere musicality, we might hear messages of despair and despondency.
Think about it.


now...I like these lines of thought presented here. The whales singing is as refreshing as the extensive repertoire / heavy riffs of the canaries..the recent story there confirmed that more folks should be exposed to the beauty/importance of creatures creatively communing. It would aid in the comprehension of environmental protection for the masses..ay?

I think the decline in beauty of whale songs has to do with noise pollution. I remember seeing an article in a nature magazine once that claimed Humpbacks used to be able to hear each others music from hundreds of miles away, before the oceans were filled with prop-driven ships and boats. I'm not sure how valid that claim is, but it's a scary thought to think we may have inadvertantly sent another intelligent species' culture into the dark-ages.

Sorry to crash the party a bit, this link got popular and I'm not familiar with this site. Is this a joke?

I'm sure whether it is or isn't I'll be getting a lot of angry responses, but oh well.

Scott, this is not a joke.

Dr Payne, PLEASE consider playing the Classics back to today's whales! Reintroduce to them the beautiful old songs (or ONE beautiful Oldie Goldie) and follow it as it is riffed and remixed THIS time!

The January '79 issue of National Geographic had a flexi-record of whale songs with commentary by Dr. Payne. (which doesn't seem to be included as part of the CD set).

i thought whalesong was a map of territory and paths through it -- i guess most animal songs and refrains are territorial; but whalesong i thought described the migratroy path.

Music reflects the times
A bitter lesson
Dogs and wolves

James T Kurk, are whales a metaphor for the overwhelmed human being? We seem to be envious of their powers of communication, don't we?

Check out IFAW's Whale Remix contest. It's amazing what these musicians compiled using whale sounds!

According to new mathematical formula for identifying rate of intelligence based upon the complexity of language used by species or applied upon one many human languages, a theory now being on standby for determining the rate of intelligence once the SETI project will detect extraterrestial communications, the most intellligent beings arent english speaking natives, not even chinese or japanese language users but Humpback whales. There seems to be a universal law for identifying intelligence based upon the complexity of signals being used in communication between sentient beings. It applies well for human languages and also depicts quiet an accurate picture of the animal kingdom, showing for instance dolphins, monkeys, elephants etc as quiet intelligent, although less then english native speakers with an average IQ. I believe HUmpback whales show up as akind of anomaly, a mystery, because the formula rates their intelligence ofscale. IN other words according to this formula HUmpback Whales are far more intelligent then human beings. I forgot the exact ratios. But it was in the order of dolphins being half as intelligent as average english speaking human being, while Humpback whales turn to go offscale witn an intelligence tenfold higher then human language. Its also known that making music, composing new songs and play them well is one of the most challenging exercises for the human brain, involving most keyareas of the grey mass. This suggest either the formula needs adjustment for musical freak animals or that indeed Humpback whales are just far more intelligent then us. A humbling thought. If the latter is through hopefully one day we will be able to listen to the real meaning of their songs, and start asking them questions, abouth life, the universe and the rest. Wilko Willemsen, member of Mensa Society Holland

Dear Dr. Roger Payne, may GOD bless you for your incrilible work, I've watched an of your programa at the National Geo at the XMAS day, i've cried with the sound as you said; "some people have diferent fell when they listening the sound of a wale"
Congratulations, my e-mail is here, my company suplies AV Equipments, if one day you have chance to be here in Brazil to "any" event count on me.



5 TrackBacks

Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: Masters of Remix - The Humpback Whale.

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Joi Ito spent some time with Dr. Roger Payne, who is an expert in whale song, having actually been the one who discovered that humpback whales sing songs (Masters of Remix - The Humpback Whale). Some interesting facts:[Humpback whales] copy... Read More

Joi Ito brings out a memory.... Masters of Remix - The Humpback Whale: I sat next to Dr. Roger... Read More

Joi Ito reports on a conversation with Dr. Roger Payne, the president of Ocean Alliance, a MacArthur-winning whale researcher. It turns out that Humpback whales riff off each other, remixing one another's songs, and developing trends and fashions in th... Read More

Whales, apparently, produced better noises in the 1960s. Read More

Textbook minamilist techno 120 tempo and kick/snare combo. Track starts with a massive thunderstorm at sea which cuts suddenly completely messing up the Whale. He whines a bit. Read More