From the team at BBC Wildlife Magazine

Scientists discover blue whale song is Beethoven’s Ninth

Marine biologists have analysed a body of blue whale recordings to discover one pod has been mimicking Beethoven’s Ode to Joy for 30 years

Underwater picture of a blue whale
Published: April 1, 2022 at 10:00 pm

We hope you enjoyed the below feature, which was an April Fools joke from BBC Wildlife for 2022.

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Marine researchers from the Cetacean Institute in Sydney have discovered that a pod of blue whales has been singing Beethoven’s famous chorus Ode to Joy for the past 30 years.

The team analysed sonic recordings from a family pod that fed in the Great Southern Australian Coastal Upwelling System every summer between the 1980s and 2000s. The recordings were played at different frequency ranges and at varying speeds, with the original speed established at 72bpm as the control speed. When sped up to 144bpm, it became clear there was a pattern between the notes.

“We could see there were repeated motifs,” said Dr Melanie Croy, who was leading the research. “The next step was to plot it against musical scales from different cultures. We tried both ends of the spectrum: the mugham musical scale from Azerbaijan, which has 17 notes, and the pentatonic scale, which contains 5. Neither of these yielded any discernible musical patterns. But when we tried it against the Western musical scale, which contains 12 notes, that’s when a very well-known pattern emerged.”

“That creatures other than humans can learn and reproduce quite complex musical material has long been established,” says Jeremy Pound, deputy editor of BBC Music Magazine. “However, this discovery is particularly exciting, as whales don’t immediately strike you as being very melodious. However, as most of the intervals in Ode to Joy are no more than a tone up or down and as their vocal range is small, I can understand how the whales were able to replicate it fairly easily. I’ll be fascinated to learn more about their singing capabilities as research develops.”

It is thought that the whales were originally exposed to the music in the 1970s when the famous underwater photographer Jacques Cousteau spent time in the Great Barrier Reef, diving off his ship The Calypso. At the time, Cousteau was experimenting with new underwater sonic technology, looking to discover the effect certain types of music had on establishing new coral reefs. Alongside Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, he also exposed the reefs to popular 1970s hits, including The Long and Winding Road by the Beatles, Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd and Paradise by the Dashboard Light by Meat Loaf. However, no melodic patterns from these songs have been found.

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Main image: Blue whales have surprised scientists with their musicality. © Getty

Authors

Tanya Jacksonacting group digital editor

Tanya Jackson is the acting group digital editor of countryfile.com and discoverwildlife.com. Her parents had a pet shop when she was growing up, so she learnt very young how intelligent rats are and why you don’t stick your hands near the beak of a cockatoo. She loves camping, hiking and watching the red kites soar over the Wiltshire hills.

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