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

Teaching Nutrition in Medical Education

Will Harvard Medical School return nutrition instruction to pre-eminence?

Animal (Code) Cracker

After listening to leviathans, an undergraduate comes to conservation.  

Breaking Bread

Alexander Heffner ’12 plumbs the state of democracy.

Most popular

Prepare for AI Hackers

Human systems of all kinds may soon be vulnerable to subversion by artificial intelligence.

The Missing Middle

How overheated political attention warps campus life

No One Deserves a Spot at Harvard

Michael Sandel makes the case against meritocracy.

More to explore

Architect Kimberly Dowdell is Changing Her Profession

Kimberly Dowdell influences her profession—and the built environment.

How Schizophrenia Resembles the Aging Brain

The search for schizophrenia’s biological basis reveals an unexpected link to cellular changes seen in aging brains.

Harvard Researchers on Speaking to Whales

Project CETI’s pioneering effort to unlock the language of sperm whales