Word! The Language Column
Other Musical Animals

Illustration: A mask with speech bubble containing music notes
What’s the music of other animals about? | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

What is the language of music? – That question isn’t easy to answer, even in relation to humans. Manon Hopf asks: what’s the music of other animals about?

By Manon Hopf

There is an inherent enchantment in poetry, a form of magic resides within it. Poetry lends language to objects and creatures that we might otherwise experience as mute in everyday life. Which doesn’t mean that they are! Poetry comes from ποιεῖν – to make, to create, to write poetry. The word lyric on the other hand is derived from λυρική – poetry accompanied by music on the lyre. Both lyric poetry and narrative poetry are closely linked with the field of music, with metrics, sound and rhythm.

The oldest known musical instrument was discovered in the Swabian Jura and is a 40,000-year-old flute made from a bird bone, the radius of a whooper swan – a very unique significance of the Schwanengesang (Swan Song). Instruments and various items were made out of products derived from other animals – wind instruments made from horns, drums made from cow or goat hide, bagpipes made of pig bladders, seal stomachs and dog skin, catgut violin strings, horsehair bows. Bone glue, shellac, ivory – the list is long. The tools people used for writing were made not only from plants and natural materials, but also from other animals: bones used for writing and scratching, leather and parchment to write on, feathers for pens, ink. Music and likewise poetry have a heritage associated with and thus also originating from the bodies of other animals – or they form the subject matter and are transcended to a medium between the human and divine domain. But what’s the music of other animals about?

never will swim with
whales but dream
their song is not a reckoning

There are various approaches when it comes to explaining the origins of human language. For example the natural sound source theory is based on the premise that humans mimicked sounds in their environment, such as sounds made by other animals. Linguists such as Otto Jespersen suggested that early human language consisted of songs, a rhythmic mimicry of natural sounds, which over time  acquired components of meaning, and these became increasingly specific and abstract. It’s similar to chimpanzee pant hoots – a repetitive rhythmic shrieking or singing that can convey strong emotions and signals like joy or fear, but is also used by individuals to soothe and calm. So one important research field for the origin of languages is zoosemiotics, which looks at how other animals use signs and the comparisons between human and other-animal languages – thereby allowing conclusions to be drawn regarding the origins of human languages. Bioacoustics in this capacity is just one sub-category of possible signals.

As mute as a fish?

After all, other animals also use sounds to express how they feel – the more social their lifestyle, the more frequent and diverse these sounds are. The meanings have a broad spectrum and are used for instance to attract and greet, or to pacify and warn. Green meerkats, a species of primate, use different warning sounds for danger – while a gurgle denotes a ground-based hazard, shrill chirping represents airborne danger. Blackbirds also have varying warning calls for danger from above or below. And even fish, which we refer to as mute according to the German idiom, use sounds and noises to find a partner, defend their territory and for orientation – admittedly so quietly that they are almost inaudible for us humans. So it can be very worthwhile for us to think beyond the limits of our own perception and open our minds to the awareness and perspectives of other animals and creatures, sharpening all our senses to pick up the inexorable babble of nature.

Ocean waves, ocean tongues

With other animals, innate vocalisations such as barking, miaowing or quacking differ from self-produced sounds such as those made by humpback whales. They can learn new sounds and even invent their own. They are also known for their songs, which turn out to be real hits and can spread throughout the seas. These songs can be up to 30 minutes long and consist of multiple parts or themes, which in turn are broken down into several phrases. The phrases consist of shrieks that ascend and descend in pitch, grunting, squeaking, growling and groaning. Humpback whales can take up the song of other humpback whales, sing it and pass it on, with the result that some songs spread throughout the ocean. The entire South Pacific is interconnected in a whale culture with different populations that engage in reciprocal acoustic and cultural dialogue – which also means that when something happens to one of the populations, there are consequences for the rest of the populations.

The sounds of the humpback whales have a range of several hundred kilometres and can reach the volume of a space shuttle launching. Deep frequencies travel a very long way in the water, and it is believed that whales can even communicate over thousands of kilometres – if only the seas were not awash with noise caused by humans. Whales are under stress – with the rise in shipping they have changed their frequencies and increased the volume so that they are still able to hear the signals. And it has been observed that humpback whales sing less or are even temporarily silent near ships – and they only begin to sing again once the ship has left their area.

The purpose of humpback whale song is not yet fully understood. The assumption is that in addition to echolocation it also plays a role in territory demarcation, keeping groups together and mating, either to attract a mate or in a sort of competition – as they are sung repeatedly, mainly by male humpbacks with their heads facing downwards. Who can sing louder, better or more accurately – or maybe more beautifully? Do humpback whales have a concept of beauty, their own aesthetic sense, possibly even an individual one?  

the tickle of a bird
on the back of a giant

the way he swoops
onto the seabed

the balance is upset
in a silent watery

from above everything is


Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.