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Music / Songs of the Humpback Whale

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Wailing whales...

Songs of the Humpback Whale is a 1970 album released by Capitol Records with nothing but sounds of singing whales. It is credited to zoologists Roger Payne, Katie Payne and Frank Watlington.

The album was made available thanks to American zoologist Roger Payne who had studied whale sounds in the 1960s. At first he was merely interested from a scientific point of view, but after a while he actually began to see it as "music" on its own. He described it as: "exuberant, uninterrupted rivers of sound". Whales happen to create long repeated themes and a group of male humpbacks will similtaneously vocalize a song, which can last up to 30 minutes, even more than 24 hours sometimes! He recorded the sounds with the use of a “hydro-phone” microphone created exclusively for the recording of sounds underwater. Payne discovered the singing was used as a way of communicating and that it actually had complex communiqués which occur in exact and repeated sequences. Frequent research ever discovered that the whale songs also change over the course of time, having different timbres and textures than those recorded decades earlier.

National Geographic magazine gave away a free flexidisc with male humpback whale songs in 1969, recorded off the Bermuda coast. Despite its Audience-Alienating Premise (no human input, no instruments, no lyrics, no danceable beats and no singing either) it was such a success that biologist Roger Payne, his then wife Katie and colleague Frank Watlington were asked to release it as a full LP. It quickly became one of the unlikeliest bestsellers ever. Until the release of this album many people were unaware that whales produced sounds under water. The album quickly became a staple of the New Age movement and used during Yoga relaxation. The record even had a sociological impact. It inspired the "Save the Whales" movement and by 1986 the International Whaling Commission came into effect, prohibiting whaling worldwide. Only Norway and Japan refused to sign.

In 2010 this entire album was inducted into the National Recording Registry for being "historically, culturally and/or aesthetically important."


Side One

  1. "Solo Whale" (9:26)
  2. "Slowed-Down Solo Whale" (1:02)
  3. "Tower Whales" (3:17)
  4. "Distant Whale" (3:52)

Side Two

  1. "Three Whale Trip" (16:25)

Humpback Tropes

  • A Cappella: In a sense, because there are no instruments.
  • Alliterative Title: "Slowed-Down Solo Whale".
  • All There in the Manual: Everything you want to know about whales is explained in the liner notes.
  • Animal Motifs: The entire album is about whales as intelligent animals whose sounds are described as "singing". The booklet provides the readers with expert information and admiration for these magnificent creatures and their intrigueing vocal abilities.
  • Animal Stereotypes: Despite the fact that whales don't jump that regularly as popular culture would want you to believe the cover still depicts one doing so.
  • Concept Album: An album entirely devoted to whale sounds.
  • Epic Rocking: "Solo Whale" is 9 1/2 minutes long, and "Three Whale Trip" takes up an entire side.
  • Everything Is an Instrument: Roger Payne refers to the whale moans as the work of "great singer-composer-poets".
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: It's indeed an album with songs created by humpback whales.
  • Face on the Cover: We see a whale jumping out of water from a distance.
  • Gentle Giant: Whales are represented as such.
  • Green Aesop: The album was create to promote awareness about the uniqueness of nature and why humans should protect whales from being hunted.
  • Guttural Growler: No other living creature can top their growls on our planet! Especially not humans.
  • Harsh Vocals: The singing is very loud, for it can be heard from quite a distance around. Yet "vocals" is not really the correct term here as whales have no vocal chords and generate sound by forcing air out of their nasal cavities. And what we call singing is merely a series of grunts, squeals, cries and rumbles.
  • In Harmony with Nature: The sounds are wonderful, soft and peaceful, though sometimes they can be melancholic and haunting too. Either way the listener will feel great warmth and wonder towards these animals in their natural environment.
  • Intercourse with You: Most of the singing here are male mating calls.
  • Leave the Camera Running: You can often hear boat propellers, sea waves and other background noises while the whales do their business.
  • Longest Song Goes Last: The album closes with the 16-and-a-half-minute "Three Whale Trip", which takes up the entire second side.
  • Miniscule Rocking: "Slowed-Down Solo Whale" is just over one minute long.
  • New Sound Album: Yes, whales have been around for centuries, so in that sense this album didn't offer anything new, except for the fact that humans had always believed these animals were mute. To hear them actually produce sounds was a big surprise to many listeners in 1970.
  • Sampling: Yes, believe it or not: people have sampled from this album. Judy Collins’ song "Farewell To Tarwathie" from "Whales & Nightingales" (1970) features her singing a traditional song about whaling A Cappella while whale sounds are mixed in. Pete Seeger wrote "The Song Of The World’s Last Whale" (1970), composer Alan Hovhaness composed "And God Created The Great Whales" (1970). In 1977 whale sounds were sampled and included on NASA's golden disc "The Murmurs of the Earth", which was sent into space with the Voyager spacecraft. Kate Bush's debut The Kick Inside (1978) features a portion of "Slowed Down Solo Whale" as an intro to her opening track "Moving".
  • Sapient Cetaceans: This album was a huge factor in helping people see whales as intelligent creatures who should be protected from being made extinct.