Songs of the Humpback Whale (album)

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. Selling over 100,000 copies, it became the bestselling environmental album in history, and its sales benefited the Wildlife Conservation Society's Whale Fund, of which Payne was Scientific Director, and which sought to conserve whales through research and public education.[2][3][4] 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).[5]

Songs of the Humpback Whale
Studio album by
ReleasedAugust 1970
GenreEnvironmental, whale song
LabelCRM Records (1970), Capitol Records (1970), Windham Hill Records (1992), BGO Records (Compact Disc, remastered, 2001)
ProducerRoger Payne and Katy Payne
Roger Payne chronology
Songs of the Humpback Whale
Deep Voices - The Second Whale Record
Professional ratings
Review scores



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.[6]

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.[7] 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][8]

Subsequent research by Payne and his then-wife Katharine Payne discovered that all male whales in a given ocean sing the same song.[8] Further, the whale songs change subtly from year to year, and never went back to previous songs.[9] 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.[10]



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.[8][11] Sales from the album benefited the Whale Fund of the Wildlife Conservation Society, then known as the New York Zoological Society.[12] Payne worked as a research zoologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society and also as Scientific Director of its Whale Fund while producing the album and its follow up, Deep Voices, from 1966 to 1983.[13]

The 1979 Vol. 155, No. 1 issue of National Geographic included a flexi disc with excerpts from the album. The excerpts were accompanied by commentary by Payne. Distributed to 10.5 million subscribers, this constituted the largest single pressing in recording history, and helped to raise public awareness about whales.[14][11][15]

The recordings and the tremendous of popularity of the album propelled the movement to end commercial whaling, which at the time was pushing many species dangerously close to extinction. In 1970, Payne gave testimony to the United States Department of the Interior for the purpose of getting great whale species listed as endangered species, and he played recordings of humpback whale songs for meeting participants.[16] The following years saw the enactment of various protections for whale species, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Commercial whaling was finally banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1986.[17]

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.[11] 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),[18] 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


  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. ^ McLellan, Joseph (26 December 1977). "It's a Whale of a Song". The Washington Post. Retrieved 28 November 2022.
  4. ^ Annual Report of the New York Zoological Society [1969]. New York: New York Zoological Society. 1970. p. 45. Retrieved 30 November 2022.
  5. ^ Andersen, Kurt. "How Pop Music Helped Save the Whales". Studio 360. Archived from the original on 2015-01-10. Retrieved 3 August 2022.
  6. ^ Liner notes to Songs of the Humpback Whale
  7. ^ "Whale song: A grandfather's legacy". 24 August 2014.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Liner notes to Deep Voices
  10. ^ Brody, Jane E. (November 9, 1993). "SCIENTIST AT WORK: Katy Payne; Picking Up Mammals' Deep Notes (Published 1993)". The New York Times – via
  11. ^ a b c Lewis, Tim (December 6, 2020). "'It always hits me hard': how a haunting album helped save the whales". The Observer – via
  12. ^ McLellan, Joseph (26 December 1977). "It's a Whale of a Song". The Washington Post. Retrieved 28 November 2022.
  13. ^ "New York Zoological Society. Center for Field Biology and Conservation records". WCS Archives Finding Aids. Wildlife Conservation Society. Retrieved 28 November 2022.
  14. ^ "Haunting Whale Sounds Emerge From Ocean's Deepest Point". National Geographic News. March 5, 2016. Archived from the original on June 26, 2020.
  15. ^ "Issue 12-07 – Flexi – Electronic Sound".[permanent dead link]
  16. ^ Burnett, D. Graham (2012). The Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century. U Chicago P. p. 630. ISBN 9780226081304.
  17. ^ "Commercial Whaling". International Whaling Commission. Retrieved 30 November 2022.
  18. ^ "Whales - Deep Voices - the Second Whale Record". Discogs. 1977.