Summoning dolphins with a flute might seem like something fresh out of The Legend of Zelda – but in Australia, scientists are doing exactly this to see if music can serve as a gateway language for communicating with cetaceans.
The experiment took to the water to serenade dolphins in Port Stephens, New South Wales, in December 2021, led by researchers from The Australian National University,
High-pitched frequencies of several instruments plus singing were a smash hit for the dolphins, with the higher register of the flute, piccolo, and recorder players as well as an opera singer attracting an engaged audience.
The range of instruments was crucial, say the researchers, as instruments like the flute reach frequencies closer to the vocalizations of dolphins that are well beyond the limitations of the human voice.
Cetaceans’ unique brain morphologies were the inspiration for the concert-led experiment – specifically, the neocortex which exhibits “a radical evolutionary jump” compared to their ancestors, says neuroscientist and dolphin expert Dr Olivia De Bergerac to IFLScience.
“The cetacean's system makes possible the very rapid formation of integrated perceptions with a richness of information unimaginable to us. In that context, music is the best way to communicate because it is faster than words.”
“Over the years, I have observed that the best way to facilitate encounters with wild dolphins is through singing or playing music. Twenty years ago, I watched my Indigenous Australian friend Bill Smith communicating with the dolphins with his didgeridoo and more recently (three years ago) I saw my famous French singer and friend Camille connecting with dolphins in Australia and France.”
Sure enough, when treated to impromptu performances by singers and musicians including Sally Walker, a flautist, the dolphins responded.
"The first encounter was beautiful because one dolphin stayed at the bow of the boat under the flute and Sally," continued De Bergerac. "It was exactly was they did with the didgeridoo. However for me the most amazing response was to see the dolphins following us outside the bay and joining us while we were swimming [while] Sally was still playing music."
That cetaceans respond to music is something that's witnessed across several species, including a pod of beluga whales that were coaxed into following an icebreaker to safety by classical music.
As well as playing and singing to the dolphins, the researchers recorded the sounds of the dolphins using a hydrophone so that they could analyze their vocalizations as one might a piece of music.
“It was when we listened to the recordings of the hydrophone that I realised how musical the dolphins themselves are,” said Professor Kim Cunio to IFLScience.
“They have an ability to sweep in magnificent glissandos (across notes), and their language is inherently musical, so that is it for me, I’ve realised that they always make music, and we can learn from that.”
It’s here where the researchers hope to develop further in their next experiment, by transposing their music to play at higher octaves and through underwater speakers to see how the dolphins respond to speeds and frequencies more in their register. They also hope to bring the dolphin sounds down by two to three octaves and transcribe it to look for musical structures in a similar way to existing research into bird song.
“Personally, I would love to make a TV documentary about the next expedition including Indigenous Australians and their knowledge about music and dolphins,” concluded De Bergerac. “I would love to be able to broadcast Sally Walker’s music under water so 100 dolphins can hear it and join us!”
[H/T: ABC News]