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Lesson Eight: What sounds do whales use to communicate? How do they hear these sounds?


Animals use sounds for communication not language. It is more similar to the way humans use music. Songbirds have to learn their songs when they are young. The song they learn is based on their species as well as their geographic location. Two individual birds of the same type will have different sounding songs due to the dialectable influences of their region. Humpback whales are also known to sing. They make rhythmic utterances that usually last 10 -15 minutes. The utterances are strung together without pauses to create a song. These whales use similar patterns as humans and often use an ABA structure for songs. Humpback whales continually make changes to the song over a five year period. Theme and variation changes allow the whale to expand its repertoire. Whale songs are considered to be the loudest of all animal songs. Researchers have also discovered that whales use rhyme in their songs which may serve as a mnemonic device and they perform their repertoire at night. Humpbacks in the same ocean sing the same songs. Males are usually the only ones that sing which leads scientists to believe that the object of the song is to attract a mate and also to ward off any other males by declaring territory. The objectives of BioMusic researchers include gaining a better understanding of the linkages between musical sounds in all species.

Learning Outcomes:

The learner will classify whales and the sounds they create as songs or calls. The leaner will identify the ABA (tiernary) form of the whale song.

Curriculum Alignment:

National Science Education Standards

Content Standard A: Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry

  • Understanding about scientific inquiry.
  • Employ simple equipment and tools to gather data and extend the senses.

Content Standard B: Physical Science

  • Position and motion of objects
  • Sound is produced by vibrating objects. The pitch of the sound can be varied by changing the rate of vibration.

Content Standard C: Life Science

  • The characteristics of organisms
  • Organisms and their environments

Content Standard E: Science and Technology

  • Abilities of technological design
  • Understanding about science and technology

Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

  • Characteristics and changes in populations
  • Changes in environments

Content Standard G: History and Nature of Science

  • Science as a human endeavor

NC SCOS Music Curriculum

Goal 6: The learner will listen to, analyze, and describe music. (National Standard 6)

  • 6.01 Identify simple music forms when presented aurally including AB, ABA, Call and Response, Rondo, Ballad, and Introduction/Coda.
  • 6.03 Use appropriate terminology in explaining music, music notation, music instruments and voices, and music performances.
  • 6.05 Identify solo and group vocal timbres including children's voices, and male/female adult voices.
  • 6.06 Respond through purposeful movement to selected prominent music characteristics or to specific music events while listening to music.
  • 6.07 Show respect while listening to and analyzing music.

Goal 8: The learner will understand relationships between music, the other arts, and content areas outside the arts. (National Standard 8)

  • 8.01 Identify similarities and differences in the meanings of common terms used in the other arts.
  • 8.02 Identify ways in which the principles and subject matter of other content areas taught in the school are related to those of music.


One 60 minute period


  • Rope with three knots or markers one for each whale
  • Pictures of three different whales (blue
  • Humpback
  • And a killer whale (actually the largest dolphin).

Technology Resources:



Unroll a rope with the lengths of three different whales marked out. Have students guess what whale might be a certain length. After they have identified the whale show a picture and discuss the other visible physical characteristics. Repeat this part for the other two whales. Ask students how whales might hear? (since there are no visible ears, students should come up with other answers, accept all responses)


Strike a tuning fork on a hard surface and place the handle to your chin with the tuning fork pointing horizontally out from your head. Discuss what you feel and hear. (Students should discuss how they can hear the tuning fork sound in their ears and feel the vibrations through their jaws.) Ask students how they think this might relate to whale hearing. Allow students to listen to the sounds of the three different whales. Have the students represent these sounds graphically in their science notebooks. For a second time, listen to the sounds while viewing a raven lite spectrogram. Discuss which whale belongs to each spectrogram and identify musical terminology that correlates to each sound. Students should be able to identify ABA form, timbre, phrases, rhythmic and melodic patterns. Ask students to explain why these sounds may be called a song. Have students identify other whale sounds as calls. Ask students why they think the whale has a variety of sound it makes? (students should state that the whale is communicating with others). Have students in groups of four play a game of “telephone” and add more information to the song each time. Practice and present it to the class. Relate this to how whales add information to adapt a current song


Show students an anatomical picture of a whale that identifies how sound travels in the jaw bone. Explain to students that what is also very different in whales with respect to other mammals is the path of sound to the inner ear. In terrestrial mammals, sound vibrations that traverse the air are received by the tympanum, and the chain of ossicles amplifies these vibrations and transmits them inwards. This is not efficient under water, where much of the sound is lost at each water-air/air-water interface. In whales sound waves are received via a sector in the lower jaw, and transmitted to the middle ear by means of a specialized soft tissue or 'fat pad' that extends from the lower jaw to the middle-internal ear. There, the tympanic membrane and the tympanic plate perceive different vibration frequencies.


Have students listen to whale song recordings using the Wild Music website. Analyze the recordings and identify similarities between human and whale song structures. Students should be able to compare phrases, rhythm, melody, intervals and ABA form. Assign students into three groups. Each group will utilize one of the spectrograms previously used in the lesson. Each group will interpret and create rhythmic and melodic patterns to duplicate the ABA form of the whale songs. Groups may use xylophones, metallaphones, melody bells, keyboards or recorders to demonstrate their interpretations. Have spectrograms displayed at the front of the room. Groups will share their compositions with the entire class without identifying which spectrogram they are interpreting. Compositions should be accurate enough for the remaining groups to analyze and identify the spectrogram which is being replicated.


(math integration) Draw a blue whale to scale in a parking lot. Whales Alive by Paul Haley is an innovative recording that combines whale and human song.


Graphic representations of songs, recognizing difference in song and call of whale, identifying three distinct whale sounds.


  • ABA – a three-part compositional form made up of a principal section which is repeated after the completion of a contrasting section
  • Classifying — grouping entities based on their common relationships
  • Ternary form – a compositional form which consists of three major sections, an A section which states the thematic material, a B section which presents a contrasting theme, and a final A section which restates the opening thematic material.
  • Theme and variation – a compositional form where an initial theme is stated and each section thereafter is a modification of that theme
  • Repertoire — a collection of music that a student has learned and is prepared to demonstrate.