It was in the 1950s during the height of the Cold War when the military built a network of underwater microphones to track the secret rumblings of Soviet submarines and sonar codes. But what sonar operators began to hear amid the man-made explosions were the songs of the whales, which can sometimes last for up to 23 hours. In 1968 one of those operators was authorized to turn his body of recordings over to budding whale scientist #Roger_Payne, assisted by researcher .
McVay and his mathematician wife [#Hella_McVay] laid out primitive sonograms of fragments of the whale’s songs on their living room floor (sonograms graph the pitch and texture of a sound against time). Each ten seconds of song took about one hour to spew out from a thermal-paper sonogram-printing device, designed to break World War II codes and used in the 1960’s by speech therapists. Hella was the first to appreciate the structure through this visual representation. “Amazing!…it repeats!” she exclaimed.
Soon, Payne and McVay traced sonograms by hand to render the sounds without extraneous noise, echoes, or harmonics:
Then, to organize the patterns they found, they devised a hierarchical notation system:
Unit: An individual vocalization, and the smallest building block of the song structure.
Phrase: The next level in the hierarchy, a repeating series of units, lasting 20–40 seconds
Theme: A sequence of phrases.
Song: A sequence of themes, typically spanning 5–30 minutes.
Song Session: A whale usually repeats a song many times, in sessions that can last a full day.
They had visual proof that these beasts were not making random sequences of moans, grunts, and clicks, but were instead creating organized underwater music. The story appeared on the cover of Science magazine in August 1971.
(...) To help see the patterns, we can use color to denote matching units. Here’s the Science cover again, colored according to Payne and McVay’s classification of units:
The set of shapes resembles the notation of Gregorian chants written in the tenth century.