The Music of Birds... and Whales

In 2000, David Rothenberg ’84 arrived at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh at dawn, unpacked his instruments—clarinets and saxophones, a Norwegian overtone flute, and some Bulgarian double whistles—and settled in to “jam with the birds.” It was the first of many sessions there, and others abroad—from Estonia to Australia, where he played in a sanctuary with “one of the shyest yet grandest singers in the world, the Albert’s lyrebird.” This agile creature with the daring plumage dances among low-hanging vines while caroling original compositions that incorporate fragments of the songs of kookaburras, green catbirds, Lewin’s honeyeaters, and other birds in its habitat.

Photograph courtesy of David Rothenberg
David Rothenberg

“Bird music has been around for millions of years—longer than human music,” says Rothenberg, a musician, a philosopher, and a professor of both at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “I wanted to explore why bird song has so many similarities to human music: melody, rhythm, repetition, invention, and the ability to fill us with joy.”

Why Birds Sing, his newest book, recounts these experiences and offers a wide-ranging discussion of scientific, musical, and poetic views on this mysterious phenomenon. (It comes with a CD of his selected sessions; excerpts can be heard at He has concluded that the different disciplines offer profound insights, but none alone can answer why—or, more interesting, what—birds sing. “My point is that the function of birdsong for many of these species is certainly to defend territory and attract mates, as evolutionary biology argues, but that doesn’t fully explain why they sing such a wide range of complex sounds,” he says. “How come one bird can do 30 minutes of a constantly changing pattern and another bird does just fine with ‘poo wheet’?

“Darwin recognized this: he said each species has its own ‘aesthetic sense,’” Rothenberg continues. “This is why starlings today like to imitate the noise of refrigerators and mockingbirds make use of car alarms. Mimicry is often discussed by biologists, but mockingbirds don’t copy songs; they compose their complex, patterned song out of the other songs they hear, with specific musical rules. The nightingale, oft praised in the poetry of Keats, Clare, and Shelley, actually sounds like a DJ in a club scratching records, chicka chicka chicka brzzzzp. Scientists tend to avoid subjective descriptions. This is why poets were hip to bird songs long before science was.”

Rothenberg has released six CDs (Before the War features jazz intertwined with recordings from the natural world) and  five other books, most about the intersection between culture and nature. As the founding editor of the Terra Nova book series (MIT Press), he presents environmental issues in terms of culture, not policy.

For the last decade, he has been increasingly obsessed “with the enigmatic sounds of other species” and is currently  on sabbatical, researching the vocalizations of whales for a new book. He has  traveled among islands in Russia’s White Sea, playing along with belugas, and ventured out with scientists studying the orcas that live off Vancouver Island.

“The more vocally social whales, orcas and belugas, use sound in a very interactive manner, so they certainly respond to clarinet sounds,” he reports. “Belugas have a wider variation of sounds, but orcas are much better studied. Every whale in the various pods there has a name, and we know exactly whom they are each related to by the different sounds they make.” The humpbacks, which “sing” during winters in Hawaii, “have the longest and most musically structured vocalizations of any animal we know,” he says. “Only the males sing, but the females don’t really respond. Other males respond, in a cooperative, not a competitive, way. And each year they change their song, but all the whales in a given ocean sing the same new song, like the latest number one hit. We have no idea why they do this.”

At press time, Rothenberg was in Hawaii. “Traditionally, humpbacks, deep in their own musical culture and ritual, have not been too interested in sounds that humans play to them,” he explains. “I’m hoping to find out otherwise!”

~Nell Porter Brown

Read more articles by: Nell Porter Brown

You might also like

The Roman Empire’s Cosmopolitan Frontier

Genetic analysis reveals a culture enriched from both sides of the Danube.

Tobacco Smoke and Tuberculosis

Harvard researchers illuminate a longstanding epidemiological connection. 

Discourse and Discipline

Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences broaches two tough topics.

Most popular

Crunching the Numbers on Voting Rights in America

Why good data are essential to understanding the Voting Rights Act

Harvard Portrait: Jelani Nelson

A theorist explores the limits to shrinking datasets.

Visas and Visions

Kavita Shah makes music in many idioms.

More to explore

Illustration of a box containing a laid-off fossil fuel worker's office belongings

Preparing for the Energy Transition

Expect massive job losses in industries associated with fossil fuels. The time to get ready is now.

Apollonia Poilâne standing in front of rows of fresh-baked loaves at her family's flagship bakery

Her Bread and Butter

A third-generation French baker on legacy loaves and the "magic" of baking

Illustration that plays on the grade A+ and the term Ai

AI in the Academy

Generative AI can enhance teaching and learning but augurs a shift to oral forms of student assessment.