Songs of the Humpback Whale (album)

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Songs of the Humpback Whale
Roger Payne - Whale.jpg
Studio album by
ReleasedAugust 1970
Genre Environmental, whale song
LabelCRM Records (1970), Capitol Records (1970), Windham Hill Records (1992), BGO Records ( Compact Disc, remastered, 2001)
Producer Roger Payne and Katy Payne
Roger Payne chronology
Songs of the Humpback Whale
Deep Voices - The Second Whale Record
Professional ratings
Review scores
AllMusic [1]

Songs of the Humpback Whale is a 1970 album produced by bio-acoustician Roger Payne. It publicly demonstrated for the first time the elaborate whale vocalizations of humpback whales, and became the bestselling environmental album in history, selling over 100,000 copies. [2] By raising awareness of the intelligence and culture of whales the album helped spawn a worldwide ” Save The Whales” movement, leading to the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment ten-year global moratorium on commercial whaling (observed by all but a few nations). [3]


Roger Payne had a background in bat and owl echolocation, but his interest in whale vocalizations came about by chance. In the late 1960s he heard on the radio that a dead whale had washed up on Revere Beach (near Tufts University where he was working) so he drove out to see it. He found that souvenir hunters had already hacked off the flukes from the dead porpoise, somebody had carved their initials in its side, and a cigar butt had been stuffed into its blowhole. He later said "I removed the cigar and stood there for a long time with feelings I cannot describe. Everybody has some such experience that affects him for life, probably several. That night was mine. [4]

In 1966, Payne heard about the whale recordings of Frank Watlington, a Navy engineer who eight years earlier had captured eerie underwater moaning and wailing sounds while manning a top-secret hydrophone station off the coast of Bermuda, listening for Russian submarines. [5] Payne asked for and received copies of the recordings, and soon found that the songs repeated themselves. The shortest songs were about six minutes long, and the longest were over 30 minutes. They could be repeated continuously for up to 24 hours. When the sounds were graphed they displayed a definite structure.[ clarification needed] [6]

Subsequent research by Payne and his then-wife Katharine Payne discovered that all male whales in a given ocean sing the same song. [6] Further, the whale songs change subtly from year to year, and never went back to previous songs. [7] Katharine Payne further discovered that the longer songs sung by the whales had structures analogous to rhyming, with key structures repeating at intervals. This raises the possibility that the whales use mnemonic devices to help them remember the more complicated songs. [8]


The album was an unexpected hit, quickly selling over 125,000 copies and eventually going multi-platinum, becoming the most popular nature recording in history. [6] [9]

Excerpts from the record have been used in songs by Judy Collins, Léo Ferré, Kate Bush, in the symphonic suite And God Created Great Whales by Alan Hovhaness, and in the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. An excerpt was also included on the Voyager Gold Record which was carried aboard the Voyager program spacecraft. [9]

The 1979 Vol. 155, No. 1 issue of National Geographic included a flexi disc with excerpts from the album. Distributed to 10.5 million subscribers, this constituted the largest single pressing in recording history, and helped to raise public awareness about whales. [10] [9] [11] (One source claims that whale recordings by Payne were distributed with a 1969 National Geographic issue. [12])

In 1989 excerpts from "Solo Whale" were used to create the sound effects for the monster Biollante in the 1989 Toho film Godzilla vs. Biollante. Numerous other recordings of humpback and other whales have attempted to capitalize on its popularity. In 2010 the album was inducted into the National Recording Registry as one of the significant recordings that "are culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States."

In 1977, Payne released a follow-up album, Deep Voices - The Second Whale Record (Capitol ST 11598), [13] which included sounds of blue whales and right whales.

Track listing

  1. “Solo Whale” – 9:32 (recording: Frank Watlington)
  2. "Slowed-Down Solo Whale" – 1:05 (recording: Frank Watlington)
  3. “Tower Whales" – 3:23 (recording: Roger & Katharine Payne)
  4. “Distant Whale" – 3:55 (recording: Frank Watlington)
  5. “Three Whale Trip" – 16:31 (recording: Roger & Katharine Payne)

Production notes

  • Produced by Roger Payne
  • Recorded by Frank Watlington and Roger Payne
  • According to, "Track 1 is a portion of a recording made by Frank Watlington of the Columbia University Geophysical Field Station at St. David's Island, Bermuda. Track 2 consists of two short sections of very high notes from the songs of 1, slowed to 1/4 of the original speed." [14]


  1. ^ "Roger Payne - Songs of the Humpback Whale". Allmusic. Retrieved 2 May 2018.
  2. ^ O'Dell, Cary. ""Songs of the Humpback Whale" (1970)" (PDF). Library of Congress. Retrieved 5 May 2018.
  3. ^ Andersen, Kurt. "How Pop Music Helped Save the Whales". Studio 360. Archived from the original on 2015-01-10. Retrieved 3 August 2022.
  4. ^ Liner notes to Songs of the Humpback Whale
  5. ^ "Whale song: A grandfather's legacy".
  6. ^ a b c Rothenberg, David. "Nature's greatest hit: The old and new songs of the humpback whale - The Wire". The Wire Magazine - Adventures In Modern Music.
  7. ^ Liner notes to Deep Voices
  8. ^ Brody, Jane E. (November 9, 1993). "SCIENTIST AT WORK: Katy Payne; Picking Up Mammals' Deep Notes (Published 1993)" – via
  9. ^ a b c Lewis, Tim (December 6, 2020). "'It always hits me hard': how a haunting album helped save the whales" – via
  10. ^ "Haunting Whale Sounds Emerge From Ocean's Deepest Point". National Geographic News. March 5, 2016.
  11. ^ "Issue 12-07 – Flexi – Electronic Sound".
  12. ^ Eshun, Kodwo (2007-06-06). "Songs of the Humpback Whale". frieze. No. 108. Archived from the original on 2019-06-08.
  13. ^ "Whales - Deep Voices - the Second Whale Record". Discogs.
  14. ^ "Humpback Whale - Songs of the Humpback Whale". Discogs.