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How Are Dolphin Sound and Music Related?

Find out how scientists are deciphering and decoding dolphin sound through music. Although summoning dolphins with a flute may sound like something out of “The Legend of Zelda,” Australian scientists are doing this to find out if music can be used as a gateway language for communication with cetaceans. This new dolphin information might be the gateway scientists are looking for to understand these lovable creatures better.

Dolphins’ Communication

How do dolphins communicate?

Dolphins’ communication falls under two types of sounds: clicks and whistles. They use clicks to sense the environment through echolocation. Whistles are for communicating and interacting with other members of their group and possibly with other species. A “signature whistle” is a distinct whistle that dolphins use to identify themselves.

1. Dolphin Echolocation

Porpoises and dolphins use higher frequencies which limit the distance they can travel.

The majority of toothed whales, including dolphins, have excellent eyesight, which allows them to see above and below water. However, they also use dolphin echolocation to navigate and hunt underwater.

Dolphins hunt with their highly developed echolocation. They emit sound waves, which they then interpret to detect the echoes of objects and other creatures in the water. It allows them to create a picture of the environment. Dolphin echolocation allows them to find food regardless of how murky the waters might be. They can also use it to find prey hidden under the sand.

While dolphins have ears, they don’t have sticky ears like ours to channel sound. They need to be streamlined to survive in the water. Their ear canals do not open to the exterior. They hear sounds via special structures within their jawbones.

2. Dolphin Signature Whistle

A bottlenose dolphin uses a signature whistle to identify itself. Scientists can identify individual dolphins based on their signature whistle. These unique whistles communicate their identity, location, and possibly, their emotional state. Dolphins use signature whistles to communicate, address others, help mother-calf reunions, and possibly broadcast their affiliation to other people.

Signature whistle frequencies are typically between 7 and 15 kHz, last less than one second, and range in frequency from 7 to 15.

After giving birth, a mother dolphin might constantly whistle to her baby for several days. It helps the calf identify its mother by imprinting acoustically.

As young as one month, a dolphin can develop its signature whistle.

Scientists suggested that dolphins might mimic each other’s whistles and use these whistles to communicate with one another.

Scientists have not found any evidence that dolphins speak a language.

3. Loud Impulse Sounds and Other Sounds

It is possible that loud impulse sounds recorded by bottlenose dolphins can be used to confuse predators or stun prey. However, this suggestion has not been confirmed.

Dolphins emit sounds above the surface of the water. Dolphins make sounds when they breach, jump, or strike the surface of the water with their flippers or flukes. These sounds might be used for dolphins’ communication.

Dolphin Sound and Music

Researchers from The Australian National University led the experiment in the water to entertain dolphins in Port Stephens (New South Wales) in December 2021.

The high-pitched frequencies of many instruments and singing were huge hits for the dolphins. A recorder player, flute, piccolo, and an opera singer attracted a large audience.

Researchers emphasized the importance of having a wide range of instruments because they can reach frequencies close to the vocalizations made by dolphins, which are far beyond the limits of the human voice.

According to Dr. Olivia De Bergerac, neuroscientist and dolphin expert, the cetacean system allows for rapid integration of perceptions that are rich in information. Therefore, music is faster than words and is the best communication medium.

Twenty years ago, Bill Smith, an indigenous Australian friend, communicated with the dolphins using his didgeridoo. Camille, a famous French singer, and friend, connected with dolphins in Australia three years later. She then added, “Over the years, I have seen that singing and playing music is the best way to encourage encounters with wild dolphins.

The dolphins responded when they were treated to spontaneous performances by singers and musicians, including Sally Walker, a flutist.

De Bergerac continued, “The first encounter was beautiful as one dolphin stayed at the bow of the boat under the flute and Sally.” It was what they did with the didgeridoo. The most remarkable response for me was to see the dolphins followed us out of the bay and joined us as we swam while Sally was still playing music.”

It has been observed that cetaceans respond to music. This is also true for various species, including a pod of belugas, who were coaxed to follow an icebreaker to safety with classical music.

Researchers recorded the sounds of dolphins using a hydrophone. The recording allowed them to analyze their vocalizations like a piece of music.

Researchers hope to further develop this technique in their next experiment by playing their music at higher octaves through underwater speakers to make the dolphins react to different speeds and frequencies. They plan to reduce the volume of dolphin sounds by two to three octaves and transcribe it to search for musical structures similar to bird song research.

De Bergerac stated, “I would love to make a TV documentary about the next expedition, including indigenous Australians’ knowledge of music and dolphins. I would love for Sally Walker’s music to be broadcast underwater so that 100 dolphins could hear it.”

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