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The Essential Guide to Songwriting for Whales

whalesong, songwriting for whales

Young humpbacks these days, all they do is just yell and scat all over the ocean, collaborating with squeaky squids and beat-boxing blowfish, no regard for the fundamentals and true craft of songwriting. For us old baleen bags of blubber, it’s important to develop an appreciation for what makes our song unique, and to honor the age-old traditions of whale song.

Welcome to class, calves.

Communicate!

As we all know, baleen whales produce sound by swirling air around our larynx, and toothed whales just click and buzz a lot, or echolocate through their giant noses. It’s super experimental. But did you know that humans also produce sound in their larynx? Their vocal cords open and close to create pockets of air, and their throats, tongues, and lips shape those air pockets for delivery.

We marine mammals are much more dependent on sound than land animals. Other senses are somewhat dulled underwater (did you know that sound travels about four times faster through water molecules than air?). So it’s really important that you effectively and clearly communicate your message.

What is it that you want to say?

If it’s a love song you sing, sing it right! Since that might be your only chance to get that female! Lyrics? Well I would suggest singing about things you’re good at, sing about your territory and use big bursts of amplitude to show your stamina.

+ Learn more on Soundfly: Capture the sounds of the ocean and sample them! Learn to use Ableton Live to create beats using found sounds and samples in Any Sound Will Do.

Learning the Structures

We whales like to sing the same hit songs over and over again. Yes they change over time, but only slightly. And when they change, everyone needs to get the memo, because we never ever revisit the old versions!

So here’s how the humpback song goes:

It starts with a base. Lay the notes out by either modulating the pitch upwards, downwards, or keep it constant and you can also choose to mess with the volume. After about 4 to 6 notes, you’ve sung a sub-phrase. When you’ve sung two different sub-phrases, it becomes a phrase. You can sing phrases over and over again but typically four phrases becomes a theme, which then is added to other themes to become a song.

Our songs last for around 30 minutes. I sometimes think we sing them over and over again because it takes so long to memorize! But it also helps to pass the time on long swims.

whalesong, songwriting for whales

+ Learn more on Soundfly: Ever wanted to orca-strate for a string ensemble? Our 5-week, mentor-supported online course can get you there faster than you’d imagine. Preview Orchestration for Strings now and see if it’s for you!

Improvise!

Use your extratonal sounds to embellish your themes, and get creative with it. It’s what makes our music so interesting to the rest of the ocean, and can be quite performative!  Some of the available techniques for us humpbacks are grunts, groans, thwops, snorts, and barks. Typically these are used for communicating to calves or alerting other members of a pod, but have fun with it, this stuff is in style these days!

And remember to use your tail and fins! Slapping against the water is sometimes called a kerplunk and it can be heard both above and below the water. Need a hype man? Breaching helps to communicate your size and location when you’re separating from the pod. Be like, “I’m here and I’m big as ^*&#!”

Volume

These days there’s a ton of ambient noise around the oceans; ships, drills and those awful sonar pings. Have you noticed? I’m not saying we all need to become opera singers, but it takes a bit of volume to get your song heard these days. Volume can also help us identify our surroundings, like how deep the water is or if there’s a large ship ahead.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “The Sound of Fear”

So there you have it calves — everything you need to know to go forth and craft a whale song like this ocean’s never heard before. And if you need some inspiration, take a swim through some of your faithful instructor’s greatest hits:

Believe it or not, songwriting is not just for whales! Unlock your creativity by enhancing your understanding of the fundamental elements of professional songwriting with The New Songwriter’s Workshop. And feel free to add a kerplunk or two in there. 

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Jeremy Young

Jeremy is a music business guru and loves giving advice to young, emerging bands on how to make their tours more effective. He also plays guitar, publishes audiobooks, runs a record label, and is an artist working in sound media. He has performed and released material throughout Europe, Asia, the US, UK and Canada, mostly with his trio Sontag Shogun.