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Do Dolphins Love Mozart?

We’ve long believed animals make sounds only for communication purposes, but a wildlife biologist hears in their calls a musician’s appreciation for beauty.

George Halekas can hear Mozart in a bird’s song, and a bird’s song in Mozart.

The former U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist hears the sounds of nature as both an aesthetic experience and a scientific one. In his Speakers Bureau presentation, Halekas discusses how he’s encountered something bigger in the sounds of nature than mere communication.

By recording and analyzing wild sounds, and putting music from his own library out into sonically-oriented animal communities — a pod of dolphins, for example — he’s come to view natural soundscapes as musical expression. Birdsong and dolphin clicks present evidence, as Halekas puts it, of “evolution moving beyond a strict survival-of-the-fittest to an appreciation and expression of beauty.”

Humanities Washington: As a wildlife biologist, how did the sound of nature — as opposed to other aspects of animal behavior — reveal itself to you as a crucial component worth studying?

George Halekas: Actively listening to nature’s soundscapes not only provided me a gateway to experience the ecological importance of a shared acoustic community, but also to hear its beauty and aural sense of place. I was fortunate to participate in a U.S. Forest Service regional bird survey. My task was to survey alpine habitat transects on five mountain peaks in the North Cascades. The survey methods were rigorous, and after I learned to identify all the singers within the entire survey area, I then began to hear how the acoustic community interacted. I listened to the way male hermit thrushes take turns singing out to each other from their scattered territories in clear resonant alpine basins. This was mountain music at its finest.

Humanities Washington: Your presentation ties animal sounds to human music. How do we know so much about Ice Age human musical pursuits? What’s the underlying research?

George Halekas: Rather than take the anthropocentric approach of linking animal sounds to human music, my presentation is “earth-centric” and places the wonderful music of humanity within older and deeper ecosystem connections on earth. For example, the earliest known human musical instruments (approximately 35,000 years old) are fragments of Ice Age flutes made of swan bones and mammoth ivory discovered from caves in Germany. Replicas of these flutes appear to play the harmonious tones of a pentatonic (five-tone) scale.

In comparison, the age of Earth is approximately 4.6 billion years, and the first 90 percent of Earth’s soundscape history was dominated by abiotic sounds like wind, waves, lightning, and flowing water. In the last 10 percent, multicellular organisms developed on Earth with greater sensory awareness, which led to some organisms having greater self-awareness, which set the stage for the evolution of interactive soundscape ecosystems. Insects were among the first major biotic sound contributors around 400 million years ago, birds evolved from dinosaurs and added their songs around 150 million years ago, and the first whale fossils date back to 50 million years ago.

Therefore when the new timbres and melodies of humanity’s music finally appeared as very recent voices in Earth’s history, they interwove with a soundscape that was already filled with interacting insects and birds. The music of humanity originated in hunter-gatherer societies. Anthropological studies of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies highlight the key role that music continues to play in facilitating group cohesion, as expressed in communal ceremonies that celebrate births, marriages, successful hunts and harvests, and to honor the dead.

Humanities Washington: You once played Mozart for a pod of spinner dolphins. How did this come about? How did they react?

George Halekas: I took advantage of an opportunity to record, and play music to, spinner dolphin pods during my free time as a crew member aboard a sailboat working on a documentary film on dolphins. Pelagic spinner dolphin pods of the Eastern Tropical Pacific are continually moving deep-water fission-fusion societies. Pod activities may range from socializing (especially when smaller pods merge into larger ones), to very synchronized group hunting efforts (especially at night when their prey return closer to the surface under cover of darkness within range of diving dolphins).

Through my recording, I could hear how each activity created a differing sound field gestalt composed of variable use of echolocation clicks, signature whistles unique to each dolphin, burst pulses, and even the intentional percussive sound of dolphins leaping into the air trying to make the biggest splash sound. The pod would monitor and react to these varying sound fields, such as dolphins moving in the direction of more intensive echolocation click areas that may indicate hunting and greater food availability, or mothers and calves trying to reunite by listening for, and moving in the direction of, each other’s signature whistles.

During the day we would follow the pod from a respectful distance. I had prepared an iPod full of music I thought dolphins might enjoy, which I projected at times from the bow. Often dolphins would come over and ride our bow wave while the music was being projected. The real test was at night when we lost sight of the dolphins, and they were busy intensively hunting. I took the opportunity to play music then, knowing that it was entirely their choice whether they would come towards the music from the boat.

Playing the Mozart Sonata for Two Pianos was what brought a group of dolphins in one night. They came right up to the hull from which I was projecting, and began to do their spin jumps trying to splash me. I assumed they were jamming with Mozart. At the very least I believe that the dolphins were curious and attracted to the music, and perhaps showed a willingness to interact within our shared soundscape.

I should mention that playing the reggae music of Bob Marley at night also triggered a positive reaction, but not like Mozart’s.

Humanities Washington: If humans can learn to communicate across species, is music the shortest likely route?

George Halekas: Music has an amazing capacity to bridge cultural and political boundaries. Our bodies can unconsciously synchronize to different musical rhythms from around the world. We can be moved to tears by a song sung in a language that we do not understand. I believe music can play a role bridging species, but more importantly we need to culturally reconnect with nature and cultivate our ecological awareness of living sustainably in balance with nature’s rhythms on which all life depends for survival. The “shortest likely route” may begin by deeply listening to nature’s soundscapes. When we can hear the patterns and interconnectedness in nature, when we hear the amazing tapestry of music in nature, then we may renew an understanding of our place, and our voice, within this interconnected web.

Humanities Washington: There’s concern about the effect of human sound on sea life, particularly whales reacting to sonar. Does human activity run the risk of drowning out the sounds wildlife use to survive and thrive?

George Halekas: The short answer is yes, machine sounds of humanity can adversely affect sound communication, especially when one factors in the cumulative effects of habitat fragmentation and loss, climate change, species extinction, desertification, unsustainable use of biodiversity, ocean acidification … the list is long. The fabric of life that sustains us all is getting more threadbare. From a soundscape perspective, the vibrancy and diversity of soundscapes that so easily provide an acoustic measure of ecosystem health is ebbing in many locations. The remaining healthy ecosystems are acoustic treasures, and they will become the building blocks and source populations for efforts to revitalize the network. We all have a positive role to play in this restoration.

George Halekas is presenting his Speakers Bureau presentation, “The Roots of Music: Exploring Earth’s Soundscapes,” throughout Washington State. Find a Speakers Bureau event near you at Humanities.org.

 

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