New research from the University of Washington has found that the vocalisations of bowhead whales may in some ways be comparable to jazz music. It was previously believed that bowheads’ songs would be similar to those of their cousins the humpback whales, which, whilst complex and sophisticated, are relatively uniform and repetitive. Instead, it was found that bowhead whales favour a more improvisational singing style, with audio recordings identifying hundreds of different tunes. Such diversity is very rare in the animal kingdom, and is found only in a few bird species. It was Professor Kate Stafford, an oceanographer at the University of Washington and the lead author of this study, who suggested the musical comparison; “if humpback whale song is like classical music”, she says, “bowheads are jazz”. Although many musical genres such as blues and rock also contain elements of improvisation, nothing rivals the complexity of soloist improvisation, or ‘riffing’, in jazz—making it a fitting analogy for the breathtaking music of the bowheads.

These are not just any songs, say researchers, but love songs, “male productivity displays” to attract potential partners during mating season; in fact, male bowhead whales may sing up to 24 hours a day beneath the thick polar ice from November to April. Unlike humans who largely use sight to navigate their surroundings, whales have learnt to rely on sound since light doesn’t travel very far in their underwater environment. Historically, bowhead whales have often been under attack by humans during many centuries of commercial whaling. Although they are currently on the Endangered Species list, Stafford’s research has shown that these remarkable whales are still alive and kicking—and singing.

Applicants for Biology or Natural Sciences might want to learn about the unique songs within the animal kingdom and the way in which different species have evolved sophisticated systems of communication. Students wishing to study Music may wish to consider the role of improvisation in the history of music, as well as the definition of music itself and whether animal “songs” should be included in it.

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