‘Consider the subtleness of the sea’: An interdisciplinary music-science investigation into humpback whale song

   School of Biology

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  Dr LE Rendell, Dr E Garland  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This project will be co-supervised by Dr Emily Doolittle, Dr Luke Rendell, and Dr Ellen Garland. Dr Emily Doolittle is a composer and Athenaeum Research Fellow at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, with research interest in the relationship between animal sounds and human music. Dr Luke Rendell is a Reader in the School of Biology with a research specialisation on cetacean behaviour. Dr Ellen Garland holds a Royal Society URF in the School of Biology and specialises in humpback song.

Humpback whale song is a signal produced by male humpback whales, primarily during the breeding season but also during migration and on feeding grounds. It is striking among animal signals for its duration, variety, and complex structure, with individual utterances being hierarchically organised into phrases that form sequences of themes. While generally accepted to be a form of sexually selected signal, the details of its function and the reasons it has evolved to such a degree of complexity are poorly understood. It has also attracted attention because it varies over time and between groups in ways that cannot be explained other than by the song being learned and spread among whales by copying – thus making it also a striking example of the cultural transmission of behaviour in non-human populations – but again the details of how and why individuals copy songs in this way are elusive.

The striking nature of humpback song, with elements of hierarchical structure, melody, and rhyme, has led to inevitable comparisons with human music. When the first recordings of humpback song were released to the public they stimulated considerable interest in the artistic community, leading to the production of a number of pieces either inspired by or directly incorporating elements from the song. However, this artistic interest has not yet been influenced by some of the most recent results showing how humpbacks learn songs from each other (‘verse by verse’, showing similar patterns of sequence learning to humans) and the patterns of change that this interactive composition process generates. We think that the time is ripe for new interdisciplinary contact between scientists and musicians to explore how these new findings can inspire new ways of composing, performing, and understanding music. This project will advance biological knowledge of humpback whale singing, using both empirical and theoretical approaches, while also directly connecting these results to a community of musicians and composers.

The biological portion of the project will build on existing work in the Rendell and Garland laboratories exploring how patterns of song structure evolve over time and travel between breeding populations. The student will develop one to two original studies based on some combination of transcribing and describing patterns of recorded song and/or working with models to explore how individual movement patterns and learning rules affect the process of song change at different hierarchical levels.

The simultaneous musical aspect of this project may take the form of a portfolio of compositions, a series of performances, musicological papers, and/or the development of humpback whale-inspired music-technological tools. The student will be introduced to the musical community at the RCS, and facilitate creative exchange, so the student will be able to collaborate with RCS musicians. The culmination of the project may involve performance and scientific outreach at various events with public outreach around the biological research being combined with artistic expression inspired by and intimately linked to that research.

Informal inquiries to the primary supervisor are very strongly encouraged.

Funding Notes

Eligibility requirements:

Desirable: Upper second-class degree (or equivalent experience) in area of Biology AND upper second-class degree (or equivalent experience) in Music or a related area.

Essential: Upper second-class degree in area of Biology and a strong interest in music OR upper second-class degree in Music or a related area and a strong interest in Biology.

Funding: Fees (UK\EU; competitive scholarships are available to waive international fees) plus maintenance at RCUK level (£14,553 pa) - split 25% each from the School of Biology and the Royal Conservatoire with a 50% St Leonard’s Interdisciplinary Scholarship.

Duration: 3.5 or 4 years


Emily L. Doolittle, Bruno Gingras, Dominik M. Endres, and W. Tecumseh Fitch (2014) Overtone-based pitch selection in hermit thrush song: Unexpected convergence with scale construction in human music. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111(46): 16616-16621.

Emily Doolittle and Henrik Brumm (2012) O Canto do Uirapuru: Consonant intervals and patterns in the song of the musician wren. Journal of Interdisciplinary Music Studies 6(1): 55-85.

Emily Dootlittle (2008) Crickets in the Concert Hall: A History of Animals in Western Music. Trans – Revista Trancultural de Música Issue 12.

Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell (2015) The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins. Chicago University Press.

Ellen C. Garland, Luke Rendell, Luca Lamoni, M. Michael Poole, and Michael J. Noad (2017) Song hybridization events during revolutionary song change provide insights into cultural transmission in humpback whales. PNAS 114 (30) 7822-7829.

Garland, Ellen C. et al. (2011) Dynamic Horizontal Cultural Transmission of Humpback Whale Song at the Ocean Basin Scale Current Biology , Volume 21 , Issue 8 , 687 - 691.

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