Cornell University

Musicology Colloquium: Roger and Katy Payne, "The Ever-Evolving Songs of Humpback Whales"

Thursday, April 16, 2020 at 4:30pm

Johnson Museum of Art, Lecture room
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, 114 Central Ave, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA

The long and haunting songs of humpback whales changed history 50 years ago through the release of a recording: “Songs of the Humpback Whale.”  Hearing the voices of these animals affected audiences, stimulating the "Save the Whales" movement -- spearheaded by Roger Payne -- to regulate and partially close the global whaling industry, and to raise interest in whales among artists and musicians. It also stimulated whale song studies which have continued ever since on breeding grounds in all oceans, as we've learned that whales are improvisational composers, whose communal song rapidly changes in every breeding season and thus is always unique both to time and place. All of this has recently become of great interest to the musical community.

Roger will present the discovery that whales sing and some of the events that revealed the social and political impact on people in several nations.  Katy will present some of the Paynes' findings about the whales' ever-changing songs, recorded by themselves and others over two decades in the North Atlantic and North Pacific oceans.

In 1959 Katy Payne received a Cornell BA in music (with honors) and biology: since then her professional work and contributions have all stemmed from original discoveries at the intersection of these fields.  Humpback whales sing long songs that change extensively, progressively, and rapidly with time – an example of non-human cultural evolution with endlessly fascinating details. Katy’s discovery of song-changing led to 15 years of recording and examining whale songs from the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans: many mysteries are still unresolved.  But she changed direction in 1984 when she, with E M Thomas and W.R. Langbauer, discovered that elephants make powerful, low-frequency calls some of which are infrasonic and travel long distances. That finding led to two decades of field work in Africa focused on elephants' acoustic communication. In 2004 Katy founded the Elephant Listening Project, in the Bioacoustics Research Program in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, for purposes of research and conservation. 

Roger Payne is best known for his discovery that humpback whales sing songs, and for theorizing correctly that the sounds of fin and blue whales can be heard across oceans. Dr. Payne has studied the behavior of whales since 1967. He has led over 100 expeditions to all the Earth’s oceans and studied every species of large whale in the wild. He pioneered many of the benign research techniques now used throughout the world to study free-swimming whales, and has trained many of the current leaders in whale research in America and abroad. He directs longterm research projects on the songs of humpback whales, and on the behavior of 1,700 individually known Argentine right whales — the longest such continuous study.

Travel support for this talk was made possible through generous funding from the Atkinson Center for Sustainability.

Part of the Whale Listening Project. Additional events:

4/17 Whale Song Sounding

4/18 Whale Song, a Workshop

Google Calendar iCal Outlook

Recent Activity