Scientists find that the blue whale song is Beethoven’s ninth song

Marine researchers from Sydney’s Cetacean Institute have found a pod of blue whales singing Beethoven’s famous refrain Ode to Joy for 30 years.

The team analyzed sound recordings from a family pod that powered 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, the speed of the origin being set at 72 bpm as the control speed. When sped up to 144 bpm, it became clear that there was a pattern between the notes.

“We could see there were repeating patterns,” said Dr Melanie Croy, who led the research. “The next step was to compare it to musical scales from different cultures. We tried both ends of the spectrum: the Azerbaijani mugham musical scale, which has 17 notes, and the pentatonic scale, which has 5. Neither of these gave any noticeable musical patterns. But when we tried it against the western musical scale, which is 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, associate editor of BBC Music Magazine. “However, this finding is particularly exciting because the whales don’t immediately strike you as being very melodious. However, like most intervals of Ode to Joy are no more than a tone up or down and since their vocal range is small I can understand how the whales were able to reproduce this quite easily. I will be fascinated to learn more about their singing abilities as research develops.

The whales are thought to have been exposed to music in the 1970s when famed underwater photographer Jacques Cousteau spent time in the Great Barrier Reef, diving from his vessel The Calypso. At the time, Cousteau was experimenting with new underwater sound technology, seeking to discover the effect of certain types of music on the establishment of new coral reefs. Alongside Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, he also exposed the reefs to popular hits of the 1970s, including The long and winding road by the Beatles, Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd and Paradise in the dashboard light by Meatloaf. However, no melodic pattern of these songs has been found.

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