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ACTIVITY: Harmonizing with Humpbacks

NGSS Science and Engineering Practices:

NGSS Crosscutting Concepts:

NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas:

The activity below draws from the content in the page Information Processing: Whale Communication.

<p>Fig. 1. What are whales trying to communicate in their songs?</p>


Animals communicate using sound (Fig.1).


How do scientists study the way animals communicate?

Guiding Questions:

  1. How do whales communicate?


In this activity, you will analyze songs to investigate how people use music to communicate. Then, construct a diagram and create your own lyrics for real whale songs.


  • Method to play music
  • Colored Pencils

Background on Sound

Sound travels in waves before it reaches our ears. A wave can be broken down into different parts; amplitude, wavelength, and frequency, or pitch. A sound graph is used by scientists to map out the sound waves that they are hearing. An example sound graph below showcases the sounds recorded by the National Parks Service near Tahoma Creek in Washington on August 13, 2015 (Fig. 3). Although there is a lot of information on this graph, the main thing we see are peaks in the noise levels. The National Parks Service recognizes this to be increased flow in the river. 

<p>Fig. 3.&nbsp;Soundscape Data from August 13, 2015 near a creek in Washington State.&nbsp;</p><br />

We can create simpler versions of a sound graph, or spectrogram, by simply listening to the sound around us and making note of changes in pitch over time (Fig. 4).

<p>Fig. 4. A simple spectrogram might still provide us information of the noises around us. This could be an example of a car passing.</p><br />



  1. Choose and listen to a popular song and a classical song.
  2. Think about and discuss some preliminary questions:
    a. What do you think or feel for each song? 
    b. What message is being communicated?
    c. How are the songs similar? How are they different?
  1. Read the above information and create your own sound graph, or spectrogram, with each of these songs (Fig. 5). 
    <p>Fig. 5. Use this blank spectrogram to plot your own sound information.</p><br />


  2. How does your spectrogram reflect your initial thoughts on the songs? Does it look like how you felt or what was being communicated?
  3. Now, listen to some sample humpback whale songs from Hawai'i here or from
  4. Create spectrograms of these whale songs on the worksheet below.

Activity Questions:

  1. Who is singing in these audio clips?
  2. Where and how do the whales sing?
  3. What sort of tools to researchers use to understand and study whale songs?
  4. What are some of the human impacts on whale songs?
  5. Why do scientists think the whales sing?
  6. Why do YOU think the whales sing? What are they saying?
  7. Answer these questions in the activity sheet below. Follow the instructions to answer the questions by writing your own lyrics to the whale song. 


Whale Song Activity Vocabulary

  • Amplitude: the measure (in decibels) of the amount of energy in a sound wave; determines loudness of the sound
  • Frequency: the number of sound waves that pass a point each second
  • Pitch: the highness or lowness of sound determined by frequency vibrations
  • Wavelength: the distance between successive waves.


Exploring Our Fluid Earth, a product of the Curriculum Research & Development Group (CRDG), College of Education. University of Hawaii, 2011. This document may be freely reproduced and distributed for non-profit educational purposes.