Musical notation created by a musician and a designer make whale song look almost like an alien language.
The soaring, ocean-wide song of humpback whales is often likened to music, but when researchers first started analyzing the clicks, moans and cries, it took the eye of a mathematician to spot a pattern, writes David Rothenberg at Medium.
Rothenberg describes how a network of underwater microphones originally built to detect Soviet submarine first brought whale songs to the ears and minds of whale scientist Roger Payne and assistant Scott McVay. When McVay layed out the printed sonograms (which map pitch and texture of sound) on his living room floor, his mathematician wife, Hella McVay, saw the structure of the cetaceans’ calls. “Amazing!… it repeats!” she said. The team traced the sonograms by hand to gain a more simplified version of the structure and devised a notation system.
That original work was published in Science in August 1971. But the analysis of whale song has only grown richer since then. Scientists now understand how songs are passed from creature to creature over the distance of vast ocean basins and give each of the 11 populations of humpbacks around the world a unique song.
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