Humpback whale communication is diverse, continually evolving, and has captivated and inspired people world-wide for generations. Some believe the melancholy notes and heartfelt quality of humpback whale song turned the page for many whale species from decades of hunting to valued measures of protection.
For decades, researchers have been following this complex underwater whale song that is constantly shifting and reshaping as each season passes. Only male humpback whales sing, the song is learned socially and is culturally transmitted within a population. During the breeding season this song display can last many hours. Along the coast of BC, it has been proposed that humpback whales practice and prepare a song for the coming year. During the song, humpback whales produce an intricate series of sounds ranging from high frequency squeals to deep low frequency rumbles.
The structure of humpback whale song can be predictable, and researchers have deconstructed its components into hierarchal elements. The base units (called notes) are singular units of sound, which are linked together to form what is referred to as a sub-phrase. Sub-phrases contain 4-6 notes, and a combination of subphrases forms a phrase. Humpbacks tend to repeat phrases over and over, and the repetition of select phrases leads to a theme. The male humpback song is then composed of a collection of various themes that are repeated in a specific order. This whale song changes from year to year. The structure and components that form humpback whale song are amazingly similar to human music composition and, as far as we know, humpback whales may be the only animals other than humans that create such complex and hierarchal patterns of sound.