BreakThru News, Ep. 33: Jamming With Whales


By Charlotte Thun-Hohenstein

Casting out into the middle of the ocean, luring a whale with music, and then proceeding to improvise in song together sounds like a childhood fantasy, perhaps the story of a shaman, certainly not the activity of a modern academic. And yet this is the recent pastime of Professor David Rothenberg, a musician and philosopher who has been making waves (pun intended) with his efforts to jam with various species in the animal kingdom.

The controversial question at the bottom of all of this is whether or not animals have the faculty for creative expression and aesthetic appreciation beyond what material survival dictates. In the case of birds, for example, conventional science asserts that any apparent musicality of birdsong is purely practical–either to attract a mate or protect territory from rivals. Rothenberg believes that this is inadequate for explaining not only the diversity of sounds within individual songs, but also between species. He has jammed with several varieties of birds (such as a laughing thrush).

However, whales are special: blue whales, the largest creatures on the planet, can send sounds thousands of miles away, and often sing below the pitch of human hearing. Humpback whales will sing for 23 hours at a time and alter their songs from month to month. Rothenberg has played his clarinet with belugas, humpbacks, and orcas all around the world.

Ultimately, even Rothenberg admits that you can never know with absolute certainty whether or not the whale is actually responding to your music, or whether you are just adding to its background noise. Even when sonograph analysis reveals evidence of unusually synchronized sounds, the sense of blended melody relies on a gut feeling in the moment.

As Rothenberg shares these insights with BreakThru News this week, what emerges above all is the exciting and humbling experience of reimagining what music might mean altogether.

Video Credits
Host, Writer – Charlotte Thun-Hohenstein
Video Editor – Andy Morell
Script Supervisor – Matthew DeMello
Research – Lisa Autz

with guest – Professor David Rothenberg